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NC Republicans Call For Quick Return To Full In-Person Schooling

Taylor Wilcox
Top Republican lawmakers in North Carolina want a return to in-person school for children as soon as possible.

North Carolina Republican leaders are calling on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to give parents the option of choosing full-time, in-person classes in public schools. 

Phil Berger
Credit NC General Assembly
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger

In July, Cooper announced that public schools would be allowed to open either in-person at limited capacity or with remote instruction. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, most districts chose the all-remote approach. 

Now Republicans are making an election issue out of it. At a press conference Tuesday at the state legislative building in Raleigh, North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger said students are suffering.  

"No reasonable person observing what's going on would say the state of North Carolina is meeting its constitutional duty to provide these kids with a sound, basic education," Berger said. "Gov. Cooper created this problem, and he needs to fix it."

Berger said it should be up to local school districts to decide how to reopen. 

The Senate leader said most parents and teachers around the state want to return to face-to-face instruction. But in many districts, teachers raised concerns about the risks of COVID-19 and pushed leaders to reopen with full remote instruction this fall.  

Berger said Wednesday that teachers who are unwilling or unable to return in person could be assigned to online-only classes.  

School districts have spent millions of dollars to set up new online learning systems and adapt schools for the coronavirus. But some educators worry that opening fully would further tax their budgets. Asked if the state might give school systems extra funding to resume in-person classes safely, Berger said lawmakers have already provided money this year.

"Over the last several months, this General Assembly has appropriated $840 million to local school systems to deal with issues having to do with COVID and having to do with closure," Berger said. 

"We will be back in session in January, halfway through the school year. If there are needs at that point, we will listen to what those needs are. It just strikes me that this question of we don't have enough money is just an excuse at this point," Berger said. 

Candidates Push For Full Opening

Joining Berger at a press conference were parents and statewide Republican candidates. They cited concerns over children's mental health, a possible rise in child abuse and neglect, and worries that students are falling behind in their studies — especially those with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is running against Cooper in the November election, called the governor's reopening plan a failure. He said North Carolina should follow the lead of public and private schools elsewhere around the country that have already reopened. 

"We have the ability to open our schools," Forest said. "There are kids all over the country, right here in North Carolina that are going to school every day. There is no solid science or data that says kids should not be in the classroom." 

Forest, who has opposed the governor's mask requirement, also suggested that schools should not require masks for students once in-person classes resume.

Catherine Truitt, a Republican candidate for state superintendent of Public Instruction, echoed Berger and Forest in calling for a full reopening, though she appeared to offer a little leeway for local districts.

"As an educator and parent, I know that when possible, students belong with their teacher in a classroom," Truitt said. "Our goal must be for students to return to full in-classroom as soon as local school leaders believe that it can be accomplished safely. Sadly this is not even an option on the table." 

Among the parents who spoke was Tara Deane, the mother of two special needs children. 

"Special needs children have been completely abandoned by the districts," Dean said.

She said her two girls had gone from a classroom with therapies for speech, vision and mobility to "a day of total isolation, with no interventions."  She said the effect has been "devastating" and led her children to regress. 

Reactions To The Idea

Cooper spokesperson Ford Porter called the press conference a political move. 

"It's stunning that these elected leaders want to fill up our classrooms today, without a safety plan, take away the statewide mask requirement and put our children at risk all to try and make a political splash," Porter said. "We all want to get our children back in school as soon as possible, but we must follow the science and data and make sure we do so safely."

A spokesperson for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had no direct comment but noted that the school board is considering a phased return to in-person classes. 

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.