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House OKs bill mandating reopening of K-12 schools in NC

By Bryan Anderson

  Associated Press/Report for America

RALEIGH — North Carolina House lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill to compel K-12 school districts to offer at least partial in-person instruction to the state’s 1.5 million public school students, but the Senate did not agree to send it to the governor because of recent changes that were made to the proposal.

Senate Bill 37 would give districts about two weeks to reopen schools while also granting parents the option of having their child continue to learn remotely. Republican leaders want classrooms swiftly reopened, but the state’s Democratic governor has expressed concern of a statewide requirement mandating the reopening.

With support from five Democrats and all Republicans, House members passed the bill with some key modifications by a 74-44 vote. The updated proposal allows educators to receive special accommodations that could allow them to continue teaching remotely if either they or a child of theirs are at increased risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. Still, school boards wouldn’t be required to offer teachers that option if “no reasonable accommodations exist.”

“Closing schools has burdened North Carolina families economically while young people fall behind in their studies, producing a devastating impact on student achievement and exacerbating socioeconomic disparities,” said a statement from House Speaker Tim Moore.

Democrats have thus far proven unsuccessful in their efforts to delay implementation of the bill.

Teacher advocates have expressed concern about being forced to return to work in person. Guidance from state public health officials prioritizes getting elementary school kids back to school amid concerns of heightened learning loss. Six feet  of physical separation is not required for K-5 students while they are seated in a classroom. Safety standards are far stricter for middle school and high school pupils.

While COVID-19 cases in the state have dropped substantially over the last month, fears of a resurgence fueled by coronavirus variants remain. The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest lobbying group for teachers, wants workers vaccinated immediately.

Cooper on Wednesday announced that about 240,000 teachers, principals and school staff of all ages could get vaccinated starting on Feb. 24 as part of a staggered rollout of a Phase 3 distribution. But the combination of supply shortages and strong demand among elderly residents could make it more difficult for educators to book an appointment.

Shortly after the House approved the reopening measure, senators declined to approve the changes and send it to Cooper. Leaders from both chambers will now meet to discuss the bill, with a conference report vote coming as early as Monday night.

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