BEAUFORT — With Gov. Roy Cooper announcing Thursday he is likely to veto a bill that would allow all students to return to in-person instruction five days a week, one Carteret County parent and school officials are lobbying to have the governor sign Senate 37, which passed the House and Senate last week.
“Students’ grades are suffering and they need the socialization,” Croatan High School parent Christine Hanks of Bogue said Friday. “We need our kids back in school five days a week. I am asking all parents to contact the governor’s office and ask him to sign the bill now.”
County Board of Education Chairperson Clark Jenkins thanked Ms. Hanks and others pushing for the measure.
“Christine Hanks has been a huge help in this effort,” he said. “These kids are suffering. We need to get these kids back in school and we thank all those supporting and helping us to make that happen.”
Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson said, “I absolutely agree with the emerging research from highly respected universities and institutions that our children need to be in school. Our Board of Education has tirelessly advocated with the Governor's office, NCDHHS (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) and our state legislators to be allowed to return our middle and high school students to school under Plan A. I am proud that our school system has been among the earliest to take advantage of every opportunity to return students to face-to-face instruction while continuing to ensure that parents have the option for their students to attend school 100 percent remotely.”
He further said, “I believe that each local Board of Education should have the authority to make these decisions based on the circumstances in their school district and I will continue to passionately advocate for that local control.”
BOE members and Dr. Jackson contacted state Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, for help in getting all students back in school full time. In response, Rep. McElraft on Tuesday introduced House Bill 90, which requires in-person instruction in all grades in Carteret County. Several other counties have also signed onto the bill.
She said H.B. 90 will only be needed if Gov. Cooper vetoes S.B. 37 and the legislature can’t override his veto.
The House passed S.B. 37 with a 77-42 vote Wednesday, with the Senate approving the measure with a 31-16 vote Tuesday. The bill now sits on Gov. Cooper’s desk. It requires local school districts to reopen and allows secondary schools to start Plan A, which involves students returning to in-person learning five days a week.
Though Gov. Cooper encourages school districts to return students to in-person classrooms, he said in a press briefing Thursday he does not support the legislation. He said it should follow NCDHHS guidance of 6-foot social distancing in middle schools and high schools, whereas the bill would allow grades 6-12 to operate with minimal social distancing under Plan A.
The current legislation would also prevent state and local officials from returning to remote instruction in the case of an emergency, which Gov. Cooper did not endorse.
Another concern expressed about S.B. 37 by Lindalyn Kakadelis, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools, is that wording in the bill appears to exclude charter schools.
Following state guidance, Carteret County Schools has elementary schools open at full capacity with minimal social distancing under Plan A. Middle and high schools may only operate with Plan B under the Governor’s executive order.
As for the effort by Rep. McElraft, she said in an email Wednesday, “I was asked by the Superintendent and school board to help them get back to school full time. We have S37 that has just passed 77-42, which can now be overridden if there is a Governor veto.
“It is so important to get these children back to school safely full time. Either through S37 or H90, hopefully our children will be back in school soon,” she continued.
Dr. Jackson said he appreciated Rep. McElraft introducing the bill.
“Emerging research from institutions like Duke University, (The University of North Carolina at) Chapel Hill, Harvard University, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others illustrate the need for students to be in school,” he said. “I am grateful for the leadership of Representative McElraft in introducing House Bill 90 allowing middle and high schools to move to Plan A.”
Another piece of the complex school attendance puzzle is the need to get teachers vaccinated.
With a recent order by Gov. Cooper, teachers are included as the next priority to receive COVID-19 vaccinations starting Wednesday.
“We are extremely excited about the opportunity for our teachers to receive vaccinations if they choose to do so,” Dr. Jackson said. “Anything we can do to assist the county in this effort, we stand ready.”
He said in preparation for the effort to vaccinate school employees, the administration recently surveyed staff to find out how many wanted to be vaccinated.
“We received 953 responses, and of those 688 said they would like to receive the vaccine,” he said.
The N.C. Association of Educators, a teachers lobbying organization, has endorsed all students returning to in-person learning only when teachers have received vaccinations and with all safety protocols in place, including social distancing.
“We have said that North Carolina’s Plan A full enrollment guidelines do not set a six-feet social distancing goal, and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says they should,” NCAE Representative Linda Powell said in a press statement. “All plans to reopen our schools during a pandemic should include a goal of six feet of social distancing. We need six feet, and anything less gives us concern for the safety of our students and educators.”
Due to the growing complaints from parents that students are falling behind due to not being in the classroom full time, a bill filed last week in the N.C. House would provide a summer school program to help the state’s K-12 public school students catch up after a year of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
The summer school program would last six weeks and be held in person five days a week. It is targeted to help those students who are most at risk of falling behind, but also open to any student who would benefit. Teachers would get enhanced pay under six-week contracts to teach the summer school program.
As for Ms. Hanks, who’s freshman son Luke attends on Plan B, she said she plans to continue lobbying for the return of secondary students to full-time, in-person learning.
“It’s time to put students first,” she said. “The power to get students back in the classroom is sitting on Gov. Cooper’s desk. I hope the governor signs this bill, but even if he chooses not to, it’s just not right to drag this out for another week and a half. Act now.”
Ms. Hanks said those wanting to voice their opinion regarding the bill can call the governor’s office at 919-814-2000, option 5.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.