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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Cooper Gets Power To Close Schools, But Democrats Back Off CDC Guidelines On Social Distancing

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper appears at a Feb. 2, 2021, press conference in Raleigh where he joined the state's superintendent to call for public school districts to offer in-person classes.
N.C. Department of Public Safety
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper appears at a Feb. 2, 2021, press conference in Raleigh where he joined the state's superintendent to call for public school districts to offer in-person classes.

In the standoff over how to reopen schools, Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats had two main objections to the GOP’s earlier proposal in Senate Bill 37.

The first was that the governor couldn’t close schools in case of a spike in coronavirus cases.

The second was that middle and high schools would be allowed to open under Plan A, with minimal social distancing. Because of the level of community spread in North Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said almost all middle and high schools should be virtual — unless they could keep students 6 feet apart.

In Wednesday’s compromise, the GOP agreed to give Cooper the ability to step in and close schools in case of a COVID-19 emergency. There are no metrics to determine when that could be done.

But Democrats backed away from their earlier position that middle and high schools follow CDC recommendations.

GOP Senate leader Phil Berger said keeping the Plan A option for middle and high schools was critical to keeping Republican support.

“I do think that the bill itself and the allowance of going to Plan A, which has minimal social distancing, is something that was a key measure as far as our willingness to go in this direction,” he said.

A number of Senate Democrats had previously called on the state Board of Education earlier this month to follow state and federal health guidelines, including following social distancing rules.

One of those was Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson, who is running for U.S. Senate. Even though the new bill allows school districts to disregard CDC recommendations, he voted yes on Wednesday. He wrote on social media that it has some “guardrails” to ensure safety.

In addition to allowing Cooper the ability to roll back in-person learning, school districts moving to Plan A must send a report to the state about how they will do so safely. But the Department of Health and Human Services can’t reject the plan.

All five Mecklenburg senators voted for the new bill.

The state’s teacher’s union – the North Carolina Association of Educators – blasted the plan.

“NCAE continues to stress the need for six feet of social distancing as recommended by the CDC in areas of high community spread to protect students and educators,” the union said in a statement. “This agreement between the governor and leaders in the state legislature will needlessly encourage school boards to push students, educators, and staff into school buildings that do not comply with CDC guidance during a pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of 11,000 North Carolinians.”

The Charlotte Mecklenburg school board Tuesday voted to increase the amount of time students are in school. Elementary students will go to school four days a week — a threshold that satisfies the new bill's requirement for Plan A.

Middle and high school students will remain in Plan B, but will have more in-person instruction.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.