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Agreement reached: Students returning to school

Update: 5:40 p.m., March 11, 2021: Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill into law.

Update: 10:16 a.m., March 11, 2021: The House passed the legislation in this article unanimously. It goes now to Governor Roy Cooper.

Update 4:40 p.m. The legislation in this article passed the Senate unanimously and moves now to the House.

State legislative leaders, Gov. Roy Cooper, and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt all gathered in downtown Raleigh today, March 10, to announce an agreement on returning students to school.

Under the plan, elementary schools must return students to classrooms under plan A — all students in classrooms with minimal social distancing. Districts have the option of having students in grades 6-12 in class under either plan A or plan B — a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. The bill does not apply to charter schools.

“North Carolina has seen promise in its vaccine distribution and declining rates of infection,” said Cooper during the press conference. “Both of which are critical to opening schools to in-person instruction. As every week goes by, I am more encouraged, though still cautious.”

Cooper and legislative leaders have been working for a week on this compromise, according to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

The compromise is going to move forward in the form of legislation, which Cooper said he hopes to sign by the end of the week. The bill is being heard in Senate committees this afternoon and is expected to be voted on by the full Senate by day’s end.

Under the bill, any district planning to move from plan B to plan A for middle and high schools has to consult with the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) before bringing students back.

DHHS can’t veto the district’s plan, but the governor does have the authority, under the legislation, to order the “closure, restriction, or reduction” of operations in a district. That can only be done on a district-by-district basis, according to Berger. Further, the governor must state his reason for the order.

This addresses one of the complaints Cooper had with in-person learning legislation that previously passed the General Assembly. Cooper vetoed that legislation because it allowed middle and high school students back into schools under plan A, which went against the guidance from DHHS. Asked about that today, Cooper said that COVID-19 metrics are moving in the right direction, and he anticipates things will be even better by the time the requirements of the bill go into effect.

Districts also have the authority to close a school or even a classroom under the legislation, according to Berger.

Districts moving to plan A must partner with the ABC Science Collaborative so that researchers can gather data on COVID-19.

Parents will retain the option of full-time remote instruction for students if they desire.

All of this goes into effect 21 days after the bill becomes law, but Berger said that districts that want to move more quickly are allowed to.

“It’s been a long week, but I think we’ve reached what I think is a fair compromise that returns many students to full-time in-person instruction,” Berger said.

You can read the full bill here.

Cooper said that Eric Davis, chair of the State Board of Education, couldn’t attend the press conference but wanted Cooper to express his support for the bill.

Truitt did speak at the press conference.

She said that yesterday she met with superintendents from the southeast region of North Carolina. She said they told her that between three major hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, fifth-graders in the southeast districts of the state haven’t had an uninterrupted year of learning since kindergarten.

“But you know what? They have soldiered on. They have been resilient. And they are coming back stronger than ever before,” she said. “Like a slow-moving hurricane, COVID-19 has wrought havoc, leaving untold damage in its wake. But just like our friends in the southeast, we begin today the hard work of recovering from this disaster.”

Read her prepared remarks here.

This coming Sunday, March 14, marks one year since schools were initially closed for in-person instruction due to COVID-19.

Watch the whole press conference in the livestream from WRAL below.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.