North Carolina health officials urge schools to reopen

Published 11:09 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2021

By Bryan Anderson and Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press/Report for America

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services called Wednesday on all K-12 public schools to offer in-person instruction “to the fullest extent possible” to the roughly 1.5 million students in the state.

The more aggressive guidance was released minutes before Senate Republicans resumed their attempt to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of legislation that would mandate — not just urge — K-12 school districts to offer in-person instruction to all students.

“Extensive research tells us we can bring students back to the classroom with the right measures in place,” said Mandy Cohen, the state’s top public health official. “And students need in-person school not only for academics, but to learn social skills, get reliable meals and to continue to grow and thrive.”

The updated reopening instructions gives schools “operational flexibility.” But they task local education leaders with understanding what health practices they must meet and developing detailed plans on how to implement the updated guidance.

Middle and high schools must adhere to stricter reopening requirements, such as 6 feet of physical distancing. While elementary school students are allowed to remain seated inside classrooms without that amount of physical separation, they should be aware of their space and must wear face coverings if they are at least 5 years old.

Meanwhile, families must be given a remote learning option if they self-identify as being at high risk of becoming severely ill if exposed to COVID-19. “Schools should only use remote learning options for higher-risk students and for families opting for remote learning for their children,” a state health department news release said.

All schools are required to provide teachers, families, school staff and students with information on how to access mental health and wellness resources. They are also encouraged to make available more on-site social workers.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a proposal written by state Republican lawmakers and supported by several Democrats that would force the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts to provide at least partial in-person learning. Cooper was concerned the bill didn’t comply with state health guidelines and wouldn’t give schools the flexibility to shut down in the event of an emergency, such as a surge in viral transmission.

After receiving his first Pfizer vaccine dose at the WakeMed Raleigh Campus on Wednesday, the governor told reporters he spoke with lawmakers from both parties earlier that day about how to improve the vetoed bill. Senate Republicans fell just short in succeeding with an override vote on Monday.

“There are some issues of degree that we disagree on, but we should be able to come to an agreement,” he said. “I believe that our children need to be back in the classroom. We just need to make sure that it is done safely, and we need to make sure that officials have emergency power to deal with things like a variant that could go tearing through our population in schools.”

Without debate or a recorded vote on Wednesday, the state Senate approved a parliamentary maneuver allowing it to vote a second time on an override at a later date.

One Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County, was absent Monday, working for his full-time employer. Republicans ended up needing one more vote in order to advance the override to the House.

Clark hasn’t said how he would vote on an override but said Wednesday he prefers a compromise being hammered out between Cooper and GOP leaders. Wednesday’s action means Republicans could hold another override vote as long as they give Democrats at least 24 hours’ notice, though that likely wouldn’t happen Thursday, Senate Leader Phil Berger told reporters.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said Republicans should “stop the political charade and work with us to pass a bill that the governor can sign.”

But Berger said Wednesday’s action by DHHS shows that the legislation has put pressure on more school districts to reopen.

“The most effective way for the Democrats to urge schools to open is to override the veto,” Berger said, adding that “the goal needs to be to get all of our schools into five-day-a-week, in-person instruction.”