RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The state House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would require K-12 public school districts to offer in-person learning.
The vote was 74-44, with five Democrats joining the Republicans in voting in favor of it.
The House made a change to the bill after the Senate passed it earlier this week, including a provision for school officials to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees at high risk for severe illness due to COVID-19 and for employees who care for someone at risk.
Sen. Deanna Ballard (R) said legislators heard from several superintendents with questions and concerns about exactly what that would mean and whether federal law already covered that issue.
The Senate did not go along with the House version of the bill. Over the weekend, Ballard said members of each chamber will meet to try to resolve the differences. If they reach an agreement, lawmakers could vote on a final version of the bill as soon as Monday night.
During the debate in the House Thursday, Rep. John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) referred to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement last week urging schools to reopen for more kids to come back in person but not mandating it.
“He’s gone as far as to say we need to reopen, which is a wonderful soundbite. But, it’s time to reopen,” Bradford said. “The governor has said that he wants to reopen schools. The Biden administration has said they’d like to reopen schools. I think this legislation really delivers on that shared priority.”
Democrats who voted against the bill raised concerns about it allowing school districts to choose whether to operate under the state’s Plan A (minimal social distancing) or Plan B (moderate social distancing). State health officials have called for middle and high schools only to return under Plan B, which calls for six feet of social distancing. This bill would allow K-12 to operate under either plan.
“One of the big things that we’re leaving out is the science,” said Rep. Kandie Smith (D-Pitt). “That is not consistent with what is stated by the health professionals.”
That is a point Cooper echoed Thursday. He didn’t say if he would veto the bill but reiterated concerns he has with it.
“My concern with this legislation is that health protocols may not be followed. And, in addition, this legislation takes away officials’ authority to act in an emergency,” he said.
Cooper announced this week that employees at schools and child care centers are next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine beginning Feb. 24.
“The CDC has gone on record saying that it’s not unsafe to open schools even with teachers and students not being vaccinated as long as safety protocols are being followed,” said Bradford.
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said though her group is glad school employees will get access to the vaccine next, they still oppose the bill moving through the General Assembly.
“The bill itself has no commitment to vaccination of educators and it continues to take away local control from our school boards,” she said. “School is continuing, just school buildings have been closed in some places, but not all. And so, we will continue to advocate for high-quality public instruction no matter if it’s virtual or face-to-face.”
Democrats tried to make several amendments to the bill Thursday, including giving districts more time to comply and including charter schools. Those were all voted down.
Democratic leader Rep. Robert Reives raised concerns about what happens if new strains of the virus lead to a surge in cases but school leaders would be unable to close an entire district under the bill.
“The risk is not worth the reward,” he said.