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The General Assembly is basically off next week, so this week was lawmakers’ last chance to move on a variety of education bills. Here’s what didn’t happen.

The “Free the Smiles Act,” a bill that would essentially put an end to the statewide mask mandate in schools did not make it out of the Senate. The House bill was a revision of a Senate bill that originally had nothing to do with mask mandates, so it had to go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote, and the Senate did not concur. Now, a conference committee will be put together so that lawmakers from the Senate and House can figure out a way compromise on the bill.

The Senate also did not concur on another bill that requires “municipalities to provide water, sewer, or water and sewer services to properties used as charter school facilities when certain conditions are met, and require municipalities to grant qualifying voluntary annexation petitions for those properties,” according to the bill summary.

That bill was a Senate bill that was originally about putting carbon monoxide detectors in public schools. Again, a conference committee will need to be put together to work out the differences between the chambers.

Also, a bill that revises requirements around when school districts transfer funds to charter schools for students from the school district attending those charter schools passed the full General Assembly and now is over to Governor Roy Cooper for his signature or veto. (Update July 12: The governor signed this bill into law on July 8)

Basically the bill would levy late payments on districts that don’t turn over money owed to charter schools in a “timely” manner. The bill passed the legislature last week.

In other news, the House education appropriations committee this week met to take a look at the recently passed Senate budget. One of the more notable conversations among House lawmakers was about the pay increase for personnel at community colleges.

Multiple representatives noted that the 3% raise for community college personnel was unlikely to do much to put a dent in the state’s poor rankings when it comes to faculty salaries. The state regularly ranks in the bottom 10 states in the nation. The state community college system had asked for a 5% pay raise for community college personnel.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, suggested that the pay raises for community colleges should be separated so that lawmakers are allocating separate raises for faculty and other college personnel. Right now they are all lumped together and Blackwell suggested that making them distinct would allow lawmakers to address faculty pay more directly.

Former principal of the year Matt Bristow-Smith and the current principal of the year Elena Ashburn spoke to the committee this week, requesting a variety of things, including a $40,000 starting teacher salary. They recently contributed to a perspective for EducationNC about what they hope for from the legislature this session. Read it here.

COVID-19 in schools

A new report from the ABC Science Collaborative found that “North Carolina schools did an outstanding job preventing within-school transmission of COVID‐19.”

The collaborative looked at schools operating on Plan A — full time in person instruction — between March and June of this year.

In a statement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt praised schools and districts for their diligence.

“I first want to commend our districts, school leaders, and teachers for being so thorough in their planning and preparation to reduce within-school transmission of COVID,” Truitt said. “It’s clear that schools could operate within Plan A in a safe and healthy way, while providing important face-to-face instruction for students. Seeing how successful North Carolina schools were in limiting transmission at a time when vaccination rates were relatively low gives me great optimism for the fall.”

She went on to say:

“Knowing that school districts are entering the new school year with higher vaccination rates for adults gives me hope that we will see mask mandates removed for K-12 students in the fall. As a proponent for local control, I believe this should be a local decision – one made by school boards in tandem with parents, based on what’s best for their student population.”

In its report, the ABC Science Collaborative also reported that wearing masks in schools helped prevent COVID-19 transmission.

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Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.