North Carolina public schools are now required to reopen with in-person learning after Gov. Roy Cooper signed a revamped bill into law late Thursday afternoon.
Senate Bill 220 requires all K-5 public schools to reopen with minimal social distancing, referred to as Plan A in the state’s guidance, and gives high schools and middle schools the option to choose between Plan A or Plan B, which requires full social distancing. Sixth-grade to 12th-grade classrooms with students with special needs are required to operate under Plan A.
“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said.
Cooper and lawmakers agreed on the language in SB 220 on Wednesday after a month of debate over the best plan to resume in-person learning in the state. The bill quickly cleared the Senate, 49-0, on Wednesday and was approved, 119-0, by the House on Thursday before Cooper signed it.
“This was a shared effort by state leaders to respond to the voices of North Carolina parents, students and taxpayers who deserve education systems that function at the highest level every day,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said. “Our work continues to ensure students have access to intense learning recovery opportunities this semester, this summer and next year.”
Republicans proposed Senate Bill 37 last month, but Cooper vetoed the bill because it allowed high school and middle school students to return to in-person learning against public health guidance. He told lawmakers he would sign a bill without the provision and more flexibility for local officials. The bill required K-12 students with special needs to resume in-person classes without the 6-feet social distancing requirement and districts to pick the best plan for other classrooms. An attempt by the Senate to override Cooper’s veto failed.
SB 220 allows high schools and middle schools to operate without the social distancing requirement when the school district partners with scientists. It calls for schools to join the ABC Science Collaborative of the School of Medicine at Duke University to collect and analyze data related to reopening. The North Carolina Department of Instruction will set aside $500,000 in federal aid for the partnership.
School districts also will be required to inform the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services of their decisions to switch plans. Parents still can select remote learning for students.
The measure allows Cooper to close specific schools or modify their restrictions if the public health need arrives. It also restricts his ability to order statewide school closures for the rest of the school year.
Most North Carolina schools already are offering some level of in-person learning. Public health guidance allows all K-12 public schools to offer in-person learning under Plan A, and sixth-grade to 12th-grade public schools under Plan B.
“We need to be careful how we craft the narrative to say that we want to reopen schools. Schools have been open, and teachers have been delivering instruction, and they’ve been also suffering,” said Rep. Amber Baker, D-Forsyth, who is a teacher. “So I want to ask everyone to also remember that teachers have also paid the price during this time. That we’re not the enemy, and that there has never been a desire for students not to return to instruction. All we have ever asked, is that it is done in a way in which our staff, our students and our parents are all safe.”
School districts have no more than three weeks to meet the requirements of the bill.
The Center Square reporter Nyamekye Daniel contributed to this report.