(The Center Square) – North Carolina Senate Republicans fell short Monday of overriding Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of legislation that requires public schools to offer full in-person learning.
Senate Bill 37 required all public K-12 schools to resume in-person learning for students with special needs without social distancing and all other K-12 classrooms to operate based on school districts' discretion.
Cooper said he vetoed the measure Friday because it puts middle-school and high-school students back in the classrooms without social distancing, going against public health guidance, and blocks officials from changing guidelines in case of an emergency.
"I have asked legislative leaders to compromise with me on these two issues, but so far, they have not," Cooper said Monday ahead of the Senate vote. "I will continue talking with legislators, and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in-person and safe."
Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the measure gives school systems and parents the ability to choose the best option for their schools and students. Proponents of the bill argued Monday the mental health and academic effects of the pandemic could be more damaging to children than the coronavirus itself.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the risks of not having our kids in the classrooms and receiving the classroom instruction that they need, I believe, at this point, is just far outweighing the risks of 6-feet social distancing," said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, a sponsor of the bill.
Ballard said she received an email from the family of a high school senior who committed suicide two hours before Cooper's veto Friday, with a suicide note "simply saying, COVID."
A report released by the North Carolina State Board of Education on Monday showed more than half of North Carolina high school students failed their end-of-course tests in the fall and 75% of third-graders are not proficient in reading.
The measure cleared the Senate, 31-16, on Feb. 16, but Republicans failed to secure the three-fifths majority vote needed to override Cooper's veto. The Senate voted 29-20 on Monday.
Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland, one of three Democrats who voted in favor of the bill earlier this month, was absent Monday. Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, voted not to override the veto after voting in favor of the bill. Sen. Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland, who voted in favor of the bill, voted to override the veto.
Democrats have filed two similar measures that follow public health guidance and would not require middle- and high-school students to return in-person classrooms with minimum social distancing.
"North Carolina has taken a careful approach to reopening our state and getting life back to normal. As a result of that deliberate leadership, North Carolina is in a better position than many other states," Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, said. "We want to take that same careful approach getting kids back into the classroom."