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Politics

Cooper, GOP Senate Leader Aim To Reach School Reopening Deal

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Gov. Roy Cooper (left) and Senate leader Phil Berger are working on a deal to get more K-12 public schools reopened.

RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Senate leader Phil Berger confirmed on Tuesday that they're working toward an agreement designed to get more K-12 public schools reopened as the COVID-19 pandemic improves.

The terms, still being discussed late Tuesday, could end a weekslong dispute between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers over how best to safely give the more than 1.4 million pupils in K-12 schools the opportunity to return to the classroom.

GOP lawmakers want all schools swiftly reopened with daily in-person instruction available. Cooper wants local school boards to have flexibility to adjust their plans in the event of a COVID-19 resurgence.

“Our top priority is to provide local districts with the flexibility they need to return as many students as possible to full-time, in-person instruction,” Berger said in an afternoon news conference at the Legislative Building.

Berger told reporters the framework of a new bill could be announced soon. Cooper said shortly thereafter at a separate coronavirus news conference that he hadn't yet reviewed specific language of a proposal.

“We all share the goal of getting our children back in person in the classroom,” Cooper said.

Neither Berger nor the governor would describe terms they are seeking for a tentative agreement and what could be included in a compromise piece of legislation.

Cooper recently vetoed a bill that would have required all of the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts to reopen with at least partial in-person instruction, while also giving parents the choice to keep their kids learning remotely. With one Democrat absent, the Senate fell one vote shy of overriding Cooper's veto last week. Senate Republicans could attempt to override the veto again. The House also would have to agree to an override.

Current reopening guidance from North Carolina public health officials allows K-5 schools to operate without students being physically separated by 6 feet while seated inside of a classroom, whereas middle and high schools must adhere to the physical distancing guidelines.

Education leaders said last week that they want all districts to make available at least partial in-person instruction by the end of the month to any public school student who wants it.

Word of negotiations came as House Republicans advanced legislation Tuesday to give more than a dozen individual districts the ability to hold daily in-person K-12 classes for the rest of the school year.

By limiting the bill’s scope to fewer than 15 counties, the measure wouldn’t be subject to Cooper’s veto stamp, meaning simple Republican majorities would be sufficient to approve the bill.

But House Democrats, and even Berger, have questioned whether such legislation violated the state constitution by addressing health matters.

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Associated Press reporter Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson.

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Anderson is a corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.