North Carolina state senators gave initial approval to a bill on Thursday that would require all 115 public school districts to offer in-person learning for all students.
Republican Senator Deanna Ballard, who sponsored the bill, cited concerns about the impact of all-virtual learning on children.
"The continued learning loss, the lack of routine, and the limited social interaction is only feeding a generation of anxious, depressed and helpless kids," Ballard said. "And we can do better."
Most districts in the state are offering at least some in-person learning, but the bill would require every traditional public school to do so.
Charter schools would be exempt from the mandate.
Some districts have chosen to stay in remote learning due to a mix of factors, including high community spread of the coronavirus and a lack of personnel and resources to coordinate a socially-distanced reopening.
Ballard cited a recent study from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University that she said shows in-person learning can be done safely. And she pointed to the state health department’s own push.
"Secretary Cohen has even said recently, that schools can reopen safely even during periods of high community transmission when they follow the safety protocols," Ballard said.
Democrats said they agree that students need to get back to classrooms. But they claimed Ballard’s proposal isn’t safe enough.
To that end, Democratic Senator Wiley Nickel of Wake County, proposed an amendment during discussions on Thursday.
"If we are going to throw our teachers back, and our kids back into the schools in the middle of this global pandemic, the least we can do is ensure that we have one nurse in every public school," Nickel said. "I urge your support."
Nickel’s amendment included $102 million to fund the initiative. Republicans, who hold the majority in the state Senate, voted to table it.
Other Democratic amendments also did not make it into the final bill. They included extending the deadline for reopening from 15 to 30 days after the bill becomes law, and providing more funding to reopen safely.
Democratic Sen. Don Davis said he was frustrated that Ballard, who he’s on an education committee with, wouldn’t negotiate to find one plan they could all agree on. Ballard said she was putting students first.
The North Carolina Association of Educators took the position that all teachers should be vaccinated before all schools are forced to reopen to in-person instruction. In a statement earlier this week, the NCAE said the state is not prioritizing teachers in the line to get a vaccine, as 25 other states have done.
The Senate will hold a final vote on the bill on Tuesday. If it passes, it will go to the House.
Gov. Roy Cooper has said he doesn't support the bill, and could veto it, though he did push for districts to reopen to some in-person instruction earlier this week. Citing current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cooper said he believes schools can reopen safely without vaccinating all teachers first.
Since Cooper's public push for some in-person instruction, the state’s two largest districts — Wake County Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — have made plans to resume in-person learning in the coming weeks.