Eleven Days in March

Earlier, we reported on the Senate’s failure — by one vote — to override Governor Cooper’s veto of bipartisan legislation (Senate Bill 37) which required that North Carolina’s school districts offer the option of in-person instruction to K-12 students for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

Just one week later, very similar legislation was introduced in the Senate, and within two days, it was unanimously approved by both chambers. Senate Bill 220 was immediately signed into law by the governor.

So what changed?

Governor Cooper said that he vetoed Senate Bill 37 because it allowed middle and high school students to return to class in violation of safety guidelines and because it hindered “local and state officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency.”

This, despite the fact that the legislation (Section 2a) required schools to adhere to health and safety directives from the Governor’s own Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which already required that middle and high schools open under Plan A (minimal social distancing), or Plan B (moderate social distancing). Schools were still required to offer instruction under Plan C (online instruction) for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

While Senate Bill 37 effectively nullified any future executive orders by the governor to order state-wide school closures (authority granted in the Emergency Management Act), it gave local school boards almost complete autonomy to make plan adjustments — if and when conditions changed on the ground. 

At the time of the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 37, he was enthusiastically supported in his efforts by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). In a statement issued that same day, the teachers’ union claimed that while they were “eager” to get back into classrooms, they warned that Senate Bill 37 was “the opposite of a safe return to in-person instruction.”

In an earlier petition, “Terms Of Re-Entry: NC Public School Workers Bill of Rights,” the NCAE’s demands were even more pointed: “In order to keep North Carolina’s children, families, and school staff safe, we assert the right to determine the conditions of the essential services provided by our public schools in our communities.”

Since Governor Cooper closed all North Carolina’s public schools on March 14, 2020, some students have not seen the inside of a classroom now for more than a whole year.

Then, when the Senate failed to override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 37 on March 1, the teachers’ union was ecstatic. They issued a Tweet thanking the Senators who voted to uphold the veto.

That’s where things get interesting.

Three days later, on March 3, DHHS updated its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, instructing schools to offer in-person learning “to the fullest extent possible while following all public health protocols.” 

The next day, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to adopt the updated guidance, reiterating the call to resume in-person learning in our public schools.

Parents’ groups from across the state had also been speaking up. One group, “Wake Families to Safely Reopen Schools,” which has since grown to nearly 6,000 members, even rallied across from the Governor’s mansion demanding that schools open back up.

As we reported earlier, large majorities of parents want a return to in-person instruction; a recent survey by the Carolina Partnership for Reform showed that a whopping 73 percent of its respondents believed that North Carolina should require all school systems to offer parents the option of in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, as pressure was mounting on the governor from all corners to re-open schools, some House members found a possible path around his prior veto: they would file a series of “local bills” that would each accomplish the goals of in-person instruction contained in Senate Bill 37. Each bill would apply to no more than 15 counties, until every one of North Carolina’s 100 counties (and 115 school districts) would be covered. Local bills — those pieces of legislation that only apply to 15 or fewer counties — do not need the governor’s signature to become law. In other words, they are veto-proof.

On March 9, the House Rules Committee approved language (called a “committee substitute”) modifying an already existing bill that had been filed by Rep. Pat McElraft.

The new and improved House Bill 90, if passed into law by the legislature (without the governor’s signature), would allow 14 school districts (in this case, Beaufort, Brunswick, Burke, Carteret, Cleveland, Craven, Granville, Haywood, Jones, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Onslow and Yancey counties) to have the option to provide all K-12 students full-time, in-person instruction for five days a week.

Perhaps not coincidentally, later that day, it was reported that Governor Cooper and the General Assembly were now close to reaching a compromise to re-open North Carolina’s schools.

According to one legislator we spoke with, the possibility that the General Assembly could successfully pull off an end-run around the governor was the needed catalyst to break the political logjam.

“The Cooper administration appears to have realized that the NCAE’s hardline position on school reopening is out of step with the needs of North Carolina families,” said Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation. “That is one reason Governor Cooper quickly ironed out a consensus plan with Republican leaders.”

Whatever was discussed in the flurry of phone calls across Jones Street that evening, the next day (March 10), the Senate Education Committee approved language gutting a prior bill on CPR cerificate requirements and replaced it with another committee substitute. Within hours, the new and improved Senate Bill 220, “An Act to Provide Access to In-Person Learning for Students in Grades Kindergarten Through Twelve” sailed through the Senate, which gave its unanimous approval later that day. The next morning, the House gave its unanimous approval to Senate Bill 220; shortly thereafter, the legislation received the governor’s imprimatur.

Senate Bill 220, the so-called compromise legislation — clarifies that local school boards would have the option to provide Plan A to all students in grades 6-12, provided they adhere to certain reporting requirements.

And like Senate Bill 37, the new legislation prohibits the governor from using the authority granted in the Emergency Management Act to order statewide school closures by executive order for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year. It does, however, grant the Governor the authority to close, restrict, or reduce operations of individual school districts for health and safety reasons for the rest of the school year.

According to House Speaker Tim Moore, the new law is a major victory for parents, students, and General Assembly lawmakers committed to getting students back into the classroom.

“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,” said Speaker Moore. “Our work continues to ensure students have access to intense learning recovery opportunities this semester, this summer, and next year.”

Not everyone was amused, however. The NCAE released a statement blasting Governor Cooper and lawmakers from both parties for compromising.

“This agreement between the governor and leaders in the state legislature will needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators, and staff into school buildings that do not comply with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians,” NCAE president Tamika Kelly said in a statement.

“It is deeply disturbing that the governor and legislative leaders failed to acknowledge the work that educators have been doing to keep students engaged and learning during the worst pandemic in a century while effectively absolving themselves of any further responsibility for the health and safety of our public schools and those who learn and work in them.”

But, despite the objections of North Carolina’s teacher’s union, our public schools will all be open by April 1.

The Carolina Leadership Coalition would like to thank legislative leaders for their commitment to re-opening North Carolina’s public schools and Governor Cooper for his willingness to break with the far-left NCAE and sign this important piece of legislation into law.

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