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Gov. Cooper signs NC return to school bill into law

Grades K-5 will be required for in-person instruction, while local school districts can make decisions for grades 6-12
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina state lawmakers have agreed to a back-to-school plan for K-12 students across the state, which has since been signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper.

After a vote in the state House Thursday, Senate Bill 220 was passed with bipartisan support according to a statement released by House Speaker Tim Moore. Titled "The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021", the bill requires schools with students enrolled from kindergarten through 5th grade to be back on campus full-time, five days per week. This goes further than a previously-rejected bill from the Senate that would have allowed schools to keep students in grades K-5 in Plan B if districts chose to do so.

"Today is just the beginning of our road to education recovery for countless North Carolina families who need our continued focus to get caught up and ready for the learning opportunities ahead for them," Moore said Thursday. "This was a shared effort by state leaders to respond to the voices of North Carolina parents, students, and taxpayers who deserve education systems that function at the highest level every day. Our work continues to ensure students have access to intense learning recovery opportunities this semester, this summer, and next year."

Districts will still have a choice for older students, however; the bill allows districts to open for grades 6-12 under Plan A if they desire, or move to hybrid learning under Plan B. Districts can also open under a combination of both plans, but all schools would need to offer students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) full-time classroom access under Plan A.

Schools who do reopen under Plan A for grades 6-12 will be required to detail plans to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), but Moore's office notes DHHS will not be able to veto local district decisions. Those schools will also be required to partner with the ABC Science Collaborative to study data related to reopening classrooms, part of an initiative funded with $500,000 of federal funds sent to the Department of Public Instruction.

All schools in the state will have to meet these requirements and reopen within 21 days of the bill's ratification. There is flexibility to open sooner.

The bill also gives authority to Gov. Cooper to order school closures on a district-by-district basis, but prohibits statewide closures via executive order. Further, families are still allowed the option of virtual learning.

While the move was praised by Moore, House Education Committee Co-Chair John Torbett (R-Gaston) said there's still much work to be done for students affected by school closures.

"Without a summer program, without constant attention to our students, this bill won't mean a whole lot. The House has shown a real commitment to help students this session. We will keep that commitment because education is the most important service North Carolina provides to families," said Torbett in a statement. "We cannot close schools long-term again, so we must prepare to meet the needs of families even throughout emergencies. We can, and we will, deliver on that priority too. Our constitution requires it, and North Carolinians can accomplish it together."

The governor signed the bill into law, saying on Twitter returning students and educators to the classroom safely was a priority, while still allowing state government response to emergencies as needed.