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Sponsors Of NC Summer School Bill Say It Provides Full Funding And Local Flexibility

Grand Oak Elementary students sit in "book boats" during an online reading activity.
Grand Oak Elementary
Grand Oak Elementary students sit in "book boats" during an online reading activity.

Republican sponsors of a bill requiring all North Carolina school districts to offer summer school said Wednesday they’re providing flexibility and funding for the effort to offset pandemic learning loss.

State Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston
North Carolina General Assembly
State Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston

Sponsors told the House Education Committee they hope to pull bipartisan support for House Bill 82, mandating six weeks of summer classes for K-12 students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. State Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County said students across the state have lost ground during almost a year of disruption and online lessons.

"This also will help bring back some of those social skills, get them back in the classroom," Torbett said. "It will impact their mental health positively. It’ll impact their educational health immensely. And it’ll impact the state’s economic health in the future, when these kids get out of school."

House Speaker Tim Moore of Cleveland County said sponsors are consulting with local superintendents. He said lawmakers will provide room for local innovation in designing the programs. And he said this won’t be an unfunded mandate that forces districts to find money or make cuts. There’s money available from COVID-19 relief and a summer reading camp program, he said.

"I’ve asked a couple of superintendents," Moore said. "I won’t say their names, but I’ve said, 'Is there enough money?' And I’ve had one say, 'There’s enough money to send every child to this summer program for the next two years right now."

The summer program would be mandatory for school districts but optional for students and teachers. Students deemed high risk for academic failure would get top priority for spaces. And districts would offer teachers six-week contracts separate from their normal work requirements.

State Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake
North Carolina General Assembly
State Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake

Several Democrats on the committee, including Rep. Cynthia Ball of Wake County, voiced support for the concept.

"Everyone I’ve talked to says that they want us to find some way to reach our students who are struggling right now who need some help to get back on track," Ball said.

Another Democrat, Susan Fisher of Buncombe County, asked if sponsors have heard from the business groups and parents who traditionally resist moves that would limit family vacation time during the summer. Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hadn’t heard from them. But he says he spoke with “members from the coast” and reminded them that at-risk students are less likely to travel.

"It’s not that you’re going to lose beach revenue off of them," Elmore said. "These kids have never seen the beach."

Torbett, a co-chair of the education committee, broke in to add that he hasn’t heard opposition from anyone.

Sponsors say the goal is to have the bill approved by April 1, allowing enough time for legislators to work out details and for school districts to sign teacher contracts for summer. Ideally, they say, COVID-19 will be much less of a threat by then.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.