Durham school board votes 4-3 to return to classrooms following tumult over SB 37

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- After a year in all-remote learning, Durham school board leaders voted Tuesday night to return to the classroom on March 15.

The tumultuous process has been a lot for Durham families to keep up with this pandemic school year: In January, the school board voted to stay all-virtual for the remainder of the year; then came Senate Bill 37 -- and the board moved to send students back March 15; And then, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill; And Republicans tried to override it.

DPS seemed caught in the middle. Tuesday night finally brought some clarity.

After Monday night's veto override of the GOP-backed school reopening bill failed to pass in the Senate, DPS reconvened to reconsider its decision to send students back to the classroom this month -- but not before getting an earful from parents on both sides of the debate.

"As a mother, I would not like to see schools open until all teachers received their vaccine," one parent wrote the board in public comment.

Another mom wrote: "This is not a game. Parents and children need follow-through on the existing plan, not a political stunt."

READ MORE: 'Stop playing politics': Reopen-schools debate heats up at Council of State meeting

Durham is the largest school system in the Triangle still going all-virtual. Some board members insisted it is still too unsafe to go back.

"In Durham, we are different," said District 4 member Natalie Beyer. "That's because we are trying to come together and take care of each other."

District 3 representative Matt Sears pitched a compromise reopening date for all students to return to in-person instruction on April 8 -- allowing more time for staff vaccinations.

READ MORE: New statewide test results reveal grim reality of pandemic learning

"For me, this as much about trust with our staff as it is about the safety factor," Sears said.

District A's Jovonia Lewis told the board that she has conducted several school tours, met with principals and staffers, and she believes COVID-19 protocols are sound.

READ MORE: Duke, UNC study finds low rates of in-school COVID transmission

"They're ready. They're ready," she said. "And of course, more time would be good, in general. But not out of a lack of preparation for health safety to begin March 15."

After weeks of reopening whiplash, it came down to the question: Will the board delay students' return once more?

Board chair Bettina Umstead delivered the deciding vote.

"My vote is last. And I vote no," she said. "I think it's time for our district to move back to March 15."

While Cooper's veto of Senate Bill 37 stands for now, it did accomplish an acceleration of discussions about sending Durham students back to the classroom, which is exactly what the board voted to do.

Durham elementary schools start back in-person March 15; middle schools and high schools on April 7.
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