Senate Bill 37 throws wrench in Durham's plan to keep schools all-virtual this year

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A North Carolina Senate bill that requires public school systems to offer in-person instruction this school year cleared a major hurdle Tuesday. SB 37 passed 29 to 15 in the Senate with all Republicans voting in favor and two Democrats signing on as well.

Most local school districts are already offering some form of in-person instruction (Wake County plans to begin sending students back next week). But for districts like Durham, SB 37 throws a wrench in its pandemic plan.

"This bill makes us nervous and scared and makes us feel unsupported," said Durham school teacher Turquoise LeJeune Parker, vice president of Durham NCAE.

The Durham chapter of the state teachers association said its educators had finally settled in to a level of classroom certainty after Durham's school board voted last month to remain all-virtual for the rest of the school year. Now, as SB 37 moves to the House, Parker says Durham teachers are anxious all over again.

"This Senate bill has given us all of that anxiety back and we're holding our breath," Parker said. "And it's very uncomfortable."

Republicans who supported the bill argue keeping the kids home comes at too high a cost: learning loss, lack of routine, anxiety and depression. The bill requires a daily in-person learning option for special education students. And it mandates either daily in-person classes or a mix of in-person or virtual for all students.

"We are closely monitoring that Senate bill," said Durham School Board Chair Bettina Umstead who told ABC11 work is already underway at DPS headquarters to draft a revised plan that returns students to the classroom.

"We had prioritized staying virtual to keep consistency for our students and families to make sure that we had time for our teachers to get vaccinated. So, this bill has definitely forced us to rethink what we're imagining for the rest of the 2020-21 school year."

Parker, who teaches six classes a day, five days a week, is concerned that without a priority towards teacher vaccinations, she and her colleagues are especially vulnerable.

"There is nothing that educators want more right now than to be back in our school buildings," she said. "But this is not a safe approach."

Durham's school board expects to hear recommendations from staff on Feb. 28 for a revised plan to return to in-person learning. It's not clear if the House will have voted on SB 37 by then. It's also not clear if Governor Roy Cooper will sign it.

The governor announced his support, last week, for a return to in-person instruction. But when asked about SB 37, Cooper said he does not support a mandate.

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