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Cooper vetoes bill that would force K-12 schools to reopen

March 2, 2021 GMT
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks during a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus, vaccination efforts, winter storms and schools reopening on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks during a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus, vaccination efforts, winter storms and schools reopening on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks during a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus, vaccination efforts, winter storms and schools reopening on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks during a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus, vaccination efforts, winter storms and schools reopening on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper speaks during a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus, vaccination efforts, winter storms and schools reopening on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday rejected a bill that would compel the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts to reopen with at least partial in-person instruction, while also allowing parents the option of keeping their kids learning remotely.

The plan introduced by Republican state lawmakers could still become law if enough of the handful of Democrats who supported the bill decide to override the governor’s veto.

“As written, the bill threatens public health just as North Carolina strives to emerge from the pandemic. Therefore, I veto the bill,” Cooper wrote in a message.

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The Democratic governor has called on school boards that haven’t yet done so to transition to in-person instruction but opposed the statewide mandate that would’ve required them to reopen with about two weeks notice. In some places, students have been kept out of physical classrooms for 11 months, prompting outcry among parents concerned about learning loss.

Cooper has also sought to address concerns among teachers advocates. Following demands from the state’s largest lobbying group for teachers, Cooper announced he would open up vaccine eligibility to child care workers and pre-K to 12th grade principals, teachers and school staff above all other “frontline essential workers.” Teachers are eligible starting Wednesday, while other subgroups can get the vaccine as early as March 10.

The North Carolina Association of Educators had pushed for the higher priority on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution list, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not believe school reopening should be predicated on teachers being vaccinated. Reopening guidance from Cooper’s administration requires indoor mask wearing for K-12 public school pupils who are least 5 years old and encourages use of face coverings for younger students. Stricter reopening guidelines are in place for middle and high schools.

Cooper believes it is safe to reopen right now but worries Senate Bill 37 would have compromised student and teacher safety and stifled local school boards’ ability to open and close based on levels of coronavirus transmission in their communities. He said in a news conference last week that he had told top state lawmakers he could sign a school reopening bill if it required districts to comply with state health department guidelines and allowed state and local leaders to respond to emergencies.

“The bill they just passed fails on both of these fronts,” Cooper told reporters. “I’ll continue to discuss potential new legislation with General Assembly leaders before taking action on the bill that I now have on my desk. It is critical for our teachers and students that we get this right.”

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Cooper noted that 95% of districts plan to provide in-person instruction by mid-March, which represents about 96% of the state’s roughly 1.5 million K-12 public school students.

The rejected bill now returns to state lawmakers for further consideration. If enough Democrats vote as they previously did in support of the bill, it will achieve the necessary three-fifths support to become law. But if they decide not to override Cooper’s decision, the bill will be killed.

“Thankfully, Senate Bill 37 passed with enough bipartisan support to override Gov. Cooper’s veto, and we expect to bring it up for an override vote,” said state a statement from Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who co-authored the bill.

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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.

___ This story was first published on February 26, 2021. It was updated on March 2, 2021, to correct an inaccurate explanation that Gov. Roy Cooper had loosened restrictions to allow elementary school students not to wear masks while seated in classrooms. In fact, his administration’s most recent guidance released in February mandates indoor mask wearing for K-12 public school pupils who are at least 5 years old.