With schools operating under virtual instruction and in-person for K-5, Senate Bill 37 seeks to expand face-to-face to all grades.

Titled “In-person Learning Choice for Families,” it aims to provide the option in response to recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state research revealed that children are less likely to contract and spread COVID-19 than adults when proper safety protocols were in place.

The CDC website reads, “Although children can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19], can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus to others, less than 10% of COVID-19 cases in the United States have been among children and adolescents aged 5-17 years.”

Read more from the CDC at bit.ly/3bqqBAZ.

On Feb. 2, Gov. Roy Cooper, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen and educational leaders encouraged school districts to provide in-person learning in light of the recent evidence.

Read the Feb. 2 story at bit.ly/3aHrp5r.

A day before the announcement, the three-page SB 37 was filed and passed through the General Assembly over the days with bipartisan support and landed on Cooper’s desk Wednesday, awaiting his signature.

Rep. Michael Wray (D-27) supports the bill and said, “I believe that we must get children back in the classroom as quickly and safely as we can. The CDC has put forward guidance on how both of these goals can be accomplished. I would have preferred that the legislation require more adherence to the CDC safety guidelines and provided more local flexibility in dealing with teachers and other staff with underlying health concerns.”

Sen. Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr. (D-4) voted against the bill and did not respond to questions by press time, as well as the primary sponsor, Sen. Ralph Hise (D-47).

The bill’s details surround the need to get children back into school by highlighting a CDC reference which shows an increase in children’s mental health visits to emergency rooms from April to October of 2020, over the same period in 2019 of 24% ages 5-11 and 30% between the ages of 12-17. It also stated that there are high failure rates in remote learning classes in middle and high school students across the state.

Read the full SB 37 at bit.ly/37ARG3q.

Stepping into the educational crisis with her first term and taking the helm, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt issued a statement following the bill’s passage.

“I’ve maintained for the last 10 months that the decision to re-open schools should remain a local one,” Truitt said. “We know that students need to be back in school for face-to-face instruction, and the science shows us that schools can safely re-open if they adhere to COVID-19 prevention policies.”

She praised the bipartisan effort for delivering a bill that would provide local discretion for school districts, while having the option for students and parents to choose in-person learning that is aligned with the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit for guidance.

The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit is a guide for school districts to follow in accordance with state COVID-19 safety protocols to conduct instruction.

Read the guide at bit.ly/3dAAJtJ.

“Parents still have a choice in which learning environment is best for their child, while teachers and staff who are uncomfortable returning have alternative options to minimize face-to-face contact and risk of exposure,” Truitt said. “This is a win for students, parents and districts across the state.”

Superintendent Dain Butler of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District said on Thursday, the school Board of Trustees had worked diligently with his administration to prepare a safe return for the students. Butler said the school district’s plan is aligned with the governor’s expectations since the school board approved in their last meeting for students to return on March 16.

“Every grade level will be adhering to the current guidelines by DHHS as outlined in the Strong Schools Toolkit,” he said. “I’m very proud of our students and their families, teachers, staff, and our principals for their resilience during this unprecedented time.”

Weldon City Schools has been operating under remote learning for the duration of the school year.

Interim Superintendent Jerry V. Congleton said the school district had developed strategies to enable teachers and students to continue the learning process effectively regardless if SB 37 is passed.

“We are fully prepared to successfully implement best teaching practices and instruction for all of our students, whether they are face to face or remote,” Congleton said.

Though the school district has remained in virtual learning for students for months, the Board of Education’s decision to stay under the plan was influenced by surveys completed by students, parents and staff on their preference for school re-entry.

If approved, SB 37 could prove to be a challenge for those opting between remote and in-person, which will impact staff and require an extra measure of commitment and dedication, Congleton said.

“It would be helpful to have additional staff to assist with these challenging requirements of providing both remote and face-to-face instruction,” he said. “However, our teachers and staff have traditionally had to work under challenging and extraordinary circumstances. We are committed to finding ways to overcome the obvious obstacles to continue providing quality educational services to all of our students.

Over in Northampton County Schools, the school district will follow the expectation of SB 37 and adhere to COVID-19 safety measures, said Mark Barfield, director of Student Services and Public Affairs. Polling of parents and staff showed they were ready for in-person learning given that safety precautions were adhered to, Barfield said.

“The possibility of both in-person and virtual learning may present some challenges, but the district is committed to meet the needs of all learners,” he said. “Socio-emotional learning and support will be a focus when our students return. Parents and stakeholders can trust that Northampton County Schools will follow the CDC and NCDHHS recommendations.”

Though many are hopeful for SB 37, the sudden move may rock Halifax County Schools’ current plan with their remote learning and stretch staff too thin.

Karen Riddick, director of Employee Relations and Recruitment, said technology had become the great equalizer, and the HCS Curriculum and Instruction team is developing a framework for a virtual academy to address the issue of a split workforce.

“Technology has become the GREAT EQUALIZER. Our Curriculum and Instruction team is developing a framework for a Virtual Academy that could address this issue,” Riddick said. “We have learned from other districts that staff having to do both is very taxing. Our plan is to address this issue differently and more effectively to prevent our teachers from being spread too thin.”

Superintendent Eric Cunningham said if SB 37 is approved, the administration will carefully review it to determine the school district’s next steps while staying aligned with the COVID-19 guidelines.

“Many of our parents are essential workers who have already reestablished a lifestyle and put structures in place that work for them and their families,” Cunningham said. “They have been doing this since March 2020 and we do not want to disrupt that.”