Raleigh, North Carolina – Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed legislation that would have forced more school systems to open up to in-person instruction, sparking a clash in the coming days with the Republican majority in the legislature.
In his veto message, Cooper said that students learn best in the classroom and noted that he has urged systems across the state to offer in-person instruction since prominent studies were released saying it is safe to do so with masking and other measures. implemented.
But Cooper said Republican-backed Senate Bill 37 fell short in two places: preventing him and other officials from closing schools again if the pandemic worsens, and allowing middle and high school students, believed to be, they transmit the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 more easily than younger students, in classrooms “in violation of the health guidelines of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.”
That second concern is up for debate, because the bill has language that requires social distancing and other safety measures as established by DHHS. But the Governor’s Office has said the language further down the bill introduces enough vagueness to fear that some systems will open without all those measures in place.
The bill also requires “Plan A” learning options, which means in-person attendance five days a week with minimal social distancing, for special education students, regardless of grade level.
Cooper said he would have signed the bill if his concerns had been addressed, and he reached out to legislative leaders in recent days seeking change.
House Speaker Tim Moore said lawmakers worked to find common ground with the governor, but now they must stand up for students and their families.
“With this veto, the governor ignored desperate parents, policy experts and students who are hurting by his refusal to let them return to the classroom,” Moore said in a statement.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt criticized the veto, saying the bill allowed for a safe return to classrooms.
“This bill should have been a victory for students, parents and districts across the state. I am disappointed to see politics at stake when we know where the science is,” Truitt said in a tweet.
Cooper’s decision puts a handful of Democrats who voted for the measure in the spotlight, particularly in the state Senate, where a Republican overturn attempt will leave them with a choice: stay consistent with the bill or back it. to the governor and vote against high-profile legislation. once supported.
Republican lawmakers accused the governor of pandering to the bill to the North Carolina Educators Association, a group of teachers repeatedly allied with Cooper and other Democrats.
“With teacher vaccinations in full swing, there is no legitimate excuse for Governor Cooper and the far-left NCAE to oppose the broad reopening flexibility this bill grants to school districts,” said Sen. Deanna. Ballard, R-Watauga, co-chair of the Senate Education committee, said in a statement. “Far Left NCAE Owns Governor’s Mansion”.
The state opened the vaccines to teachers on Wednesday and added them to other categories already underway, including those 65 and older. It will be some time before all teachers are fully vaccinated, but top health officials have said schools can safely open before that is achieved.
NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement that the bill “would have unnecessarily endangered the health and safety of educators and students.”
“The best action that all legislators can take at this time is to encourage their communities to adhere to safety protocols and to encourage vaccination of all school employees,” said Walker Kelly.
Ballard, who sponsored Senate Bill 37, said he expected an attempt to override the veto. The office of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the attempt will likely come soon.
Most systems already offer in-person instruction according to what the bill requires. Durham Public Schools are a notable exception, and system leaders decided this week to wait and see what Cooper did with the bill before finalizing a planned return to the classroom on March 15.
Before the bill came into play, Durham school leaders had decided to stay virtual for the remainder of this school year.
Even if Cooper’s veto is overturned, his move gave school systems and concerned teachers time to get back into the classroom. You used all but one of the 10 days the state constitution gives you to decide on a bill, and even if Republican leaders move as quickly as possible on an annulment and that annulment is successful, the process will take much of the time. next week.
The bill requires systems to conduct in-person classes on the first day of the week that comes 15 days after the bill becomes law.
Under the North Carolina constitution, it takes three-fifths of the members present and voting in each house to override the governor’s veto. The number of votes depends on how many legislators are in the chamber when the vote is called, but assuming total attendance, that’s 30 votes in the 50-member Senate.
Because the bill started in the Senate, that’s where the first nullification attempt will come in, moving to the House only if it is successful in the Senate.
The Senate voted 31-16 to send this bill to Cooper, with three Democrats, Senators Ben Clark, D-Hoke, Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland and Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, voting with the Republican majority. A fourth Democrat, Sen. Ernestine Bazemore, a Bertie Democrat, did not vote that day, but had previously voted against the bill.
Republicans will need to convince at least two Democrats to join them in overriding Cooper’s veto. If they do, it will be the first time they have dumped it since December 2018.
But Lowe said in a brief phone conversation Friday night that he will back the governor, leaving Republicans a tight needle to thread. Clark said “it would be prudent” for Republicans to make adjustments to the bill the governor requested.
DeViere did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The bill passed in House 77-42, a more comfortable margin in a 120-member house, where it takes 72 votes to override the governor, assuming perfect attendance. Eight House Democrats sided with their Republican colleagues on the bill, with a ninth absent during the final vote.
That math becomes important only if there is a successful override in the Senate.