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Education

Gov. Cooper's veto of school mask mandate opt-out is upheld

Governor Roy Cooper wearing a mask and red striped tie in front of a podium.
Courtesy Gov. Roy Cooper Twitter

The North Carolina legislature failed on Wednesday to override another of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, this one on a bill that would have allowed K-12 students to opt out of COVID-19 mask-wearing mandates, even as those schools with such directives have become few.

The Senate's 27-22 vote fell short of the three-fifths majority required to overcome Cooper's most recent veto. The result means the Democratic governor's streak of upheld vetoes — stretching from early 2019 — continues.

Cooper's victory came as he again rallied Democrats who had originally voted for the measure to return to his side. While Republicans control both the House and Senate, they have lacked veto-proof majorities on their own since the end of 2018.

The legislation would have given children, with their parents’ permission, the option not to wear a mask in school districts that have ordered students and staff to wear face coverings. Mask mandates have been issued to control the spread of the coronavirus.

The measure was written by Republicans and approved last month. That came the same day Cooper had encouraged boards of education to end broad indoor mask requirements amid falling COVID-19 transmission rates and rising vaccination numbers.

But with all but five of the state’s 115 school districts already shifting to mask-optional policies — most over the past several weeks — the effect of the legislation for now would have been minimal. Those still with mandates include the Durham County schools and a handful northeast of Raleigh near the Virginia border.

Bill supporters have said the opt-out measure was needed to affirm that parents can make health-related decisions for their children.

Families already get to decide whether to follow government recommendations on healthy diets and exercise, said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican. The same should apply when it comes to masks, she told colleagues.

“Parents are the ones responsible for caring for those kids that they brought into this world,” Ballard said in urging an override so as “to ensure that the full rights of parents are there to decide what is best for their children.”

In his veto message, Cooper said a 2021 law that left mask-mandate decisions to local school boards was still the right way to go. He also warned against passing laws that “encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow,” especially when it comes to future public health challenges.

The Senate vote “is yet another attempt by the governing majority to politicize masks and push for more extreme legislative overreach,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, in asking the veto be upheld. “Our state’s approach to COVID has worked, and we should stick to it.”

An override also would have to have been successful in the House for the legislation to become law.

The legislature has not overridden a Cooper veto since December 2018. He has issued 43 vetoes since early 2019, according to General Assembly data.

The Senate voted as the General Assembly returned briefly this week to wrap up an annual session that began in January 2021 but whose adjournment has never been finalized. Their work was delayed by a months-long budget impasse that ended in November and redistricting that continued until last month.

By one accounting, it's the longest uninterrupted session since at least 1965, when calculated by the number of days that lawmakers hold chamber floor meetings, according to legislative data.

A resolution formally closing the 2021 “regular session” and approved by the Senate still gives the General Assembly the option to hold three days of meetings in early April and early May to take action on a fixed number of topics. Otherwise, the legislature would reconvene May 18 — the day after the primary — to hold its traditional session in even-numbered years.

On Wednesday evening, the Senate approved a 52-page bill negotiated with House leaders that made largely technical corrections to the current two-year budget law and other previously approved legislation.

But the measure also directs the state to begin a second round of applications from certain North Carolina businesses that generate economic losses from the pandemic to receive cash grants. The measure also would expand eligibility for these Business Recovery Grant Program funds. The bill will be considered by the House on Thursday.

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