Mar 10, 2021
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper Coronavirus Press Conference Transcript March 10: Reopening Schools
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper held a press conference on coronavirus on March 10, 2021. He announced plans for reopening schools. Read the full transcript of the news briefing here.
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Governor Cooper: (00:02)
Well, good morning, everybody. It’s good to see you all on this absolutely beautiful North Carolina day. When this pandemic seized our state a year ago, one of the hardest decisions we made was to close our schools to children, and to put them in remote learning. Even though it saved lives and was the right thing to do, it hurt. It hurt the parents who couldn’t go to work. The teachers missed interacting with their students in person. It hurt the sports teams, the clubs, the activities, the fabric of our communities. Most of all, it hurt the children, who, despite the heroic efforts of teachers and parents with remote education, weren’t able to learn, grow, and thrive the way we know that they should.
Governor Cooper: (01:03)
More than a month ago, I stood up and strongly urged that students get back into the classroom. Legislators introduced bills, and health officials helped schools plan to go back safely. And slowly but surely, the students are getting back into the classroom. Today I’m pleased to stand with these leaders and announce an agreement to get all students in school safely and surely.
Governor Cooper: (01:37)
North Carolina is seeing promise in its vaccine distribution and declining rates of infection, both of which are critical to opening schools to in-person instruction. As every week goes by, I am more encouraged, though still cautious. Just last week, the State Board of Education and public health leaders told us that all students should be in the classroom and that it could be done safely.
Governor Cooper: (02:08)
Today, the bill before you tells schools when and how. The good news is that I think we all want the same thing: To open our schools to in-person instruction for all students, and to do it safely with important emergency protections. I believe, and our public health leaders agree, that we can do that safely with precautions like face mask and other safeguards found in the public schools’ toolkit.
Governor Cooper: (02:45)
Coming to agreement after acrimony isn’t always easy, but it’s the right thing to do for North Carolina. I appreciate the work with legislators, particularly Senators Berger, Blue, Ballard, and Don Davis. Senator Berger, I’ve appreciated the discussions with you this week and into last night, and appreciate you and Senator Ballard being honest brokers, and that all we agreed upon was included in the bill. And I’m grateful for all 22 Senate Democrats who care about our public schools and who contributed to this strong outcome. Now I’d like for Senate President Pro Temp Phil Berger to explain our legislation and give you his thoughts, followed by Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, who worked closely with me throughout, House Speaker Tim Moore, House Democratic Leader Robert Reeves, the Senate bill sponsor, Deanna Ballard, Senator Ballard, and our Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt. Our State Board of Education Chairman, Eric Davis, could not be here, but he has asked that I express his support for this bill as well as our Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mandy Cohen, who also supports the bill. I’ll now turn it over to Senator Berger.
Senator Berger: (04:38)
Thank you, Governor, and thank you to your staff that was working on this arrangement, and all of the details that go along with it. We’ve reached a compromise agreement on school reopening that returns many students to full in-person instruction. For the past week, we’ve engaged in detailed negotiations with the Governor to reach a final product. All sides have seen and agreed to the language in the bill. I’ll walk through the particulars.
Senator Berger: (05:12)
All elementary schools will be required to operate under plan A, and local districts will have the option of plan A or plan B for middle and high schools. Districts moving to plan A for middle and high schools are required to notify DHHS prior to moving to plan A, and they are required to describe their plan for moving to plan A. The purpose here is to provide for consultation. However, DHHS will not have the authority to veto a district’s move to plan A.
Senator Berger: (05:52)
However, the Governor will be given the authority to order a closure, restriction, or reduction of operations within schools, but must only do so on a district by district basis. Any closure order or other restriction of school operations issued by the Governor must state the basis for the closure or restriction. A local district will also retain the authority to close a school or a classroom in the event of an outbreak. Any district that chooses to move middle and high schools to plan A is required to partner with the ABC Collaborative, the ABC Science Collaborative to allow researchers to collect and analyze anonymized data from those districts, just as they did last year for schools in plan B. The ABC Collaborative has done nationally recognized work, and they’ve been at the leading edge of analyzing data within schools to report on the safety of in-person instruction. The partnership this bill creates between local districts and the ABC Science Collaborative will be beneficial for those districts, but will also likely produce rich analysis that can inform policies across the country. North Carolina can be a national leader in reopening schools and producing world class analysis to enable other states to follow suit. Schools will also be permitted to add some teacher work days between the date the bill becomes law and the date they begin operating under a new plan to provide those districts with time to prepare for the switch, if needed. For districts in which middle and high schools remain in plan B, students with an IEP or a 504 will have the option of plan A at the discretion of the student’s parent. All grades must provide parents the option of full-time virtual instruction. $500,000 will be reallocated to DPI to contract with the ABC Science Collaborative to fund data collection and review. The effective date of the requirements in the bill is 21 days after it becomes law, but school districts moving to plan A or plan B will not have to wait the 21 days if they are ready to go.
Senator Berger: (08:34)
Those are all the tenants of the arrangement that we’ve worked out. I’d like to thank everybody involved in negotiating this, but especially Senator Ballard. She and members of the Governor’s staff spent a great deal of time talking about the details of this legislation, and we expect the bill to move today in the Senate, and we will have it over to the House by close of business today. It’s been a long week, but we’ve reached what I think is a fair compromise that returns many students to full-time, in-person instruction. Thank you.
Speaker 1: (09:25)
Thank you, Governor, and thank all of my colleagues and the superintendent up here today who are going to make statements. But I have to say one thing before I get into the things directly affecting this. Senator Berger said North Carolina, in how we do this, can be an example to the nation on how we reopen schools. I think that this is more significant, even though schools are the most important thing to us. We can be an example to the rest of the nation on how you make government, especially democratic representative government work so that it benefits all of the citizens-
Speaker 1: (10:03)
… representative government work so that it benefits all of the citizens of our state, so the state of North Carolina can blaze the trail and show how we get things done for the benefit of all of the citizens of our state and of this country. Now, it’s fair to say that everybody that you see before you up here has been working toward the same goal; that is to get students back in school safely. I was making some comments earlier, I got two grandkids in a school three blocks this way and two grandkids in an elementary school five blocks this way to the North. And I share all of the excitement of their parents in trying to get them back in school. And I’m encouraged that we’re up here today because of the shared efforts of the executive branch and the legislative branch, and the shared efforts between Democrats and Republicans to do the right thing for all of the North Carolina students, educators, and all of those involved in the education process.
Speaker 1: (11:02)
I appreciate the Republican leadership’s efforts and their willingness to come to the table to try to find a compromise, but getting everyone to the table is half the battle. The results of those efforts are why we have a truly bipartisan bill before you today that everyone can support and that we can enact in less than 24 hours. I think that the bill before us is a strong sign of a bi-partisan approach that we can take going forward from this point on, as we’ve tried to do to a great degree in the Senate on other issues. This is the hard part of legislating, but it pays off in the end. And my hope and my belief is that this is not the end of our work together for a collaborative process. My hope is that this is the beginning of a new level of cooperation between the political parties here, between the governor’s office and the general assembly. We have a lot of work ahead of us in this session. It’s only just beginning, and we can do more for all of North Carolina by the example that we show in this legislation by continuing to work together. Thanks for letting all of us be a part of it.
Speaker 2: (12:22)
Good morning. Governor Senator Berger, Senator Blue, representative Reaves, I want to thank our Senate and House colleagues who are also with us today for this announcement. This is good news a lot of parents have been waiting to hear around this state for months, and that is the children of this state are going back to school. This compromised bill represents an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to all agree on a process moving forward. As you know, we had legislation where we sought to do this earlier, and I think actually this product that we have here actually accomplishes all of those goals and then some. There’s no question, this has been a really tough time on the families and on the children of this state. Learning loss is a real thing, and so we’ve now by the passage of this bill we’re stopping the –
Speaker 3: (13:59)
… up here today for hard work and continuing the work. And I want to echo what leader Blue has talked about in the fact that I think not only can this be an example of how to get schools reopened safely, securely, and in the best interests of your citizens, but a way of showing how government can work when it is split between two parties, when it is split between two chambers, two governments, all of that, working together with our governor’s office to try to do the best thing for the people. This was a true compromise. It is something that I am proud to be part of. I am very thankful for the work of all the caucuses. I am very thankful for the work of my caucus. Speaker [inaudible 00:14:38] and I will tell you that we did a whole lot of hard work on our end, trying to make sure that we have talked and fully vetted things that have gone on during this process and during this bill.
Speaker 3: (14:47)
And so, again, what I hope this is, is the first of many of these types of press conferences, the first of many of these types of agreements, and again, a way to not only show other governments, but to show our citizens that we can all have the same goals, we can have the same purposes, we can have the same concerns, even though we may approach them differently. But the key word is to be able to listen to each other and find ways to agree and find our commonalities. So thank you everybody for this process. Thank you all for your hard work, and we appreciate everything that has happened up to this time.
Senator Ballard: (15:29)
Good morning. I do just have to start by saying thank you as well. We have a series of thank yous that we’ve all been sharing this morning, but I would like to think the governor, especially, and his team, and Senator Berger, but of course all our colleagues in the House and the Senate chambers. I mean, specifically Senator Davis, Senator Michael Lee, Kirk Deviere, and many other folks who have been a part of this and really trying to come up with some solutions along the way. I’d also like to thank superintendent Truitt. She and the board have really been strong advocates for getting our kids back into the classroom on a full-time basis. So I just want to thank you for your continued efforts in that area and to your leadership. I know she’s been a month and a half, two months in now. So thank you. Appreciate that.
Senator Ballard: (16:17)
And also, I want to thank our parents of all the kids. We’ve heard from a lot of parents, we’ve heard from a lot of school children, we’ve received letters and notes, and I just want to applaud families who are so engaged, more engaged than ever in their students’ education and the importance of what that means for them in the future. So again, just a real big shout out to our families across the state of North Carolina on this, but I am excited. This has been a lot of hard work, a lot of diligent effort in this. So I’m sure your next question is really what happens next. So I’ll just tell you specifically, what happens next is this bill will be heard in Senate Education Committee shortly, so around noon, after which it will go to the Senate rules and then to the Senate floor for a four o’clock vote this afternoon and then over to the House for what we hope is a swift pathway in that chamber as well, sir.
Senator Ballard: (17:19)
So I could say we’re potentially a few dozen hours away from local districts having the option to move to planning, which is really just quite exciting and wonderful, but I think we also need to ask and kind of to follow up on what Senator Blue and Berger and Governor Cooper have said, the real question of what really is next. And I think today is very important and significant, in that the conversation is changing. There’s been so much conversation dominated by terms such as learning laws, declining outcomes, chronic absenteeism, failing grades.
Senator Ballard: (17:54)
In North Carolina, I think it’s important that today we take a step and we are doing this that we’re not going to operate, we’re no longer operating from a deficit mindset. We’re not operating from behind anymore, but we’re moving forward. And we’re going to move forward with an abundance of thought and opportunities to benefit all of our students for their personal success, which in turn benefits our businesses, strengthens our communities, and of course our wonderful state economy. So I just want to just emphasize how important that matters and the efforts that we’re doing in those areas and just the long-term benefits of that. And I strongly just continue to encourage all my colleagues behind me and then over to the right here that we’re just going to continue to work together to ensure just really building a stronger and better North Carolina. Thank you.
Speaker 4: (18:57)
Wow, what a great example for all of our students everywhere across the state to see this great bipartisan effort before you all. I could not be more proud to be standing here today with these fine people and all of you. Everyone watching this press conference has a story to share about the past 12 months and the impact COVID has had on all of our lives. And we will be sharing these stories for decades to come. Some of these stories will be marked by resiliency and heroism. Others will be marked by hardship and sadness. My own story includes watching our three children experience isolation from sports and friends and academics. Like many parents, I’ve been worrying about the extent to which they’re falling behind academically, the missed opportunities for teenagers from not being at school, but most of all, we worry about their mental –
Speaker 4: (20:03)
At school, but most of all, we worry about their mental health. And I think to myself, if I as a former teacher and a state education leader have these worries, I can only imagine how difficult and exhausting this has been for others, including all of our wonderful teachers. And just when I think I’ve gotten my head around all of our state education challenges, I learned something new that totally changes how I see things. Yesterday, I had the pleasure to meet with the superintendents from the southeast region of our state. And they told me something very surprising between three major hurricanes and one pandemic, if you are a fifth grader in one of those 11 counties, you have not had an uninterrupted year of learning since kindergarten, but you know what? They have soldiered on. They have been resilient and they are coming back stronger than ever before.
Speaker 4: (21:10)
Like a slow moving hurricane COVID-19 has wrought havoc, leaving untold damage in its wake, but just like our friends in the southeast, we begin today the hard work of recovering from this disaster. As Senator Ballard said, we are not approaching this from a deficit mindset anymore. Our North Carolina COVID story will be one of resiliency and heroism. We will find new ways to continue to support our local districts and communities so that students will get what they need to be successful post-pandemic.
Speaker 4: (21:52)
And thanks to these leaders here, we start that work now. We’re sending a clear message that for students, the cost is too great and the loss too large to prevent all of our students from attending school five days per week. I want to thank governor Cooper, Senator Berger, Speaker Moore, Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry, and also Senator Davis and Senator Ballard. All of those names have such a clear heart for our children. And to all of my colleagues standing here and here, thank you so much for giving our children this example of bipartisanship. Today’s decision is about restoring choice to parents, students, and teachers, and providing greater flexibility for school districts. Today is about putting our students first. Thank you.
Governor Cooper: (23:06)
So, we’ll all be available for questions. Let me add one thing and you all may have said it, but I just want to make sure in case you didn’t say it, the effective date of this legislation is 21 days after I signed the bill and the bill is ratified. So, with the track that it looks like it’s on, that means it’s probably around April 1st, one side or the other. And we know that this is spring break for a number of our school systems. So, if that day that it becomes in effect falls within spring break, then it will start the day after they get back. Just making sure that everybody knows the effective date, but we’ll open it up all of us for questions.
Speaker 5: (23:57)
Govenor, two questions on my mind. One, you said that you’ll sign the bill as soon as it comes over and then, two, is there anything in the bill that requires kind of when counties have the bearing to choose Virtual Academy or not. Months in, is there any kind of second life that that app will acquire by [inaudible 00:23:57] for any counties that require parents to make a pathway sometime in winter?
Governor Cooper: (24:25)
So, first I’m hoping to sign the legislation this week. It’s got to move through the legislative process, but I hope that I can sign this legislation this week. Secondly, there is a full option for a parent to choose virtual education for their children. Now, I’ll let somebody else on the technical side of this say, but it will be up to the local school, I think, as to whether someone who is in Virtual Academy and has chosen that, and then has changed their mind, as to whether they want to go back into the in-person. That’s what I believe. And Catherine says that’s what she believes as well. Yes.
Speaker 6: (25:20)
Will you veto the Senate bill [inaudible 00:25:20]? One of the concerns you’ve raised was it not quite [inaudible 00:25:20]. This bill now calls for [inaudible 00:25:20].
Governor Cooper: (25:20)
Speaker 6: (25:22)
So, what’s changed? Why are you [inaudible 00:25:22]?
Governor Cooper: (25:24)
Well, first there is a three week period before this bill becomes effective, number one. Number two, our metrics continue to improve. Number three, the school system is required to notify the Department of Health and Human Services and explain the plan to them. And fourth, the governor retains emergency authority to make changes if necessary. Now I don’t want to, and don’t plan to exercise that authority because I want to get children back in school. But in talking with Dr. Cohen and Susan Gale Perry, they believe that our metrics are heading in such a way that plan A for middle and high school by three weeks from now would be something that they would be supportive of. If a local school system has that option, it wants that option. And if it’s a good plan in place. Yes, sir.
Legislative leaders, [inaudible 00:26:38]. Why was it so important that you had something in writing in state law and mandated?
Senator Berger: (26:56)
Gary, not withstanding the efforts that legislators and the governor have made to encourage systems to go ahead and reopen, some were not as quickly moving as others. And it was felt that passing legislation that would require all systems to go to plan A for elementary schools was critically important and could be done safely and trying to get the entirety of the state at least moving in that direction of getting schools reopened.
Speaker 7: (27:34)
Gary, in that same vein, the science does seem to be clear that the elementary students are very safe being back in class. And just a lot of concern of Senator Berger said, some of the districts were moving ahead already having students back, but some were waiting. And so, there’s just been an overriding concern that all these young students need to be back in school.
Speaker 8: (27:55)
Speaker 7: (27:55)
Speaker 8: (27:56)
Speaker 7: (27:59)
We’ll vote on it either tonight or tomorrow. We’ll get it from them this evening. And so, it does need to go through the committee process. If we don’t do it this evening, we’ll do it in the morning.
Speaker 8: (28:08)
Speaker 7: (28:29)
I’ll let one… You. I’ll let Senator Ballard respond to the technical questions on those.
Speaker 8: (28:34)
Senator Ballard: (28:34)
They’re going to have in-person instruction. I’m sure probably a lot of the folks that’ve been operating in plan B, I mean, they’ve already really kind of developed the systems and the processes that have been in place for them and will continue in that direction, in that vein, as of right now.
Speaker 8: (29:00)
Senator Ballard: (29:08)
Middle and high school will be required plan B, but with a local option of plan A. So should the local school board decide to move in the direction of plan A for middle and high school, they will do so, but also in notification to DHHS.
Speaker 9: (29:25)
Governor Cooper: (29:39)
Well, I, and I’ll let Senator Berger and democratic leaders talk to that, but I think clearly when you go back in person, you need to make sure they have the resources. And this leads us to what we’re going to be talking about in the general fund. We know that our schools are going to need more nurses, more counselors, more psychologists, and we know we need to make sure that-
Governor Cooper: (30:03)
… ologists. And we know we need to make sure that we’re providing pay to keep educators in. And we had a budget dispute last time and we can point fingers at each other, but the fact remains is that educators did not get a pay raise in the last budget. And we need to remember that going into this, and make sure that they have everything necessary.
Governor Cooper: (30:23)
I wanted to address one other thing is why did we need legislation? I agreed that we needed legislation too, because I wanted to get, particularly our K through five back in person. State health officials and the state school board had already said that is where they should be. Our research is pretty conclusive. I agree with the speaker on that, that that is where they should be. And I believe that it needed to move faster. And in fact, it was one of the suggestions that I made to Senator Berger, to kick off these conversations is, why don’t we make sure that our K through five are doing five days a week in person, and we can work out everything else.
Governor Cooper: (31:05)
So I think we’ve moved to this time and place in this COVID crisis, where this is going to be strong legislation. We know that by the time this starts, teachers would have had more than five weeks getting vaccinations. All of the safeguards that are in place. I think the time is right now, to try to finish out this year strong, and to take care of some of those needs for children that we need. And they’re going to need significant investment. We look forward to that COVID money that is coming in. It’s coming in this time too, in this third bill that’s coming. So we need to make strong investments in education. Senator Berger, you probably want to address that too.
Senator Berger: (31:52)
Don, the reality is we just appropriated a little over one and a half billion dollars of federal dollars to go to local systems, to address many of the things that you point out. So we will, as part of the ordinary budgeting process, look at other issues that are out there. And to the extent that there are additional dollars, state dollars needed, we will certainly consider that. But at this point in time, I don’t think there’s a legitimate concern that there’s not been enough money provided to the local systems to address what takes place in this bill. The only additional dollars that really are needed, and the bill takes care of that, is the $500,000 that DPI will utilize to enter into the agreement with the ABC Collaborative.
Speaker 10: (33:04)
Governor Cooper: (33:04)
We needed to do this on a collaborative way. The state board has been pushing local school boards. I believe that we should give as much local control as possible to our local schools, but this need, overwhelming need to get our children back into in-person instruction, particularly K through five, which really wasn’t happening fast enough. I think this legislation is a good way to bring everybody involved. Most everybody’s had some contribution into this legislation, and I think it’s a positive way to do this. Yes, sir?
Speaker 11: (33:50)
Governor Cooper: (33:56)
I review each bill is I get it from the legislature and I’ll veto it if it’s bad. So we look forward to talking about it.
Speaker 12: (34:03)
I wish we could have a bipartisan effort of opening long term care homes. My mom died two weeks ago. His mom died, her mom dies. Senator Berger, my mom was Henry Miller’s aunt. When is it going to change? The residents are vaccinated, the staff are not willing to be. There need to be essential caregivers. Isolation is killing.
Governor Cooper: (34:36)
I am so very sorry that that has happened to you and your family. And I’ve talked to a number of people who have lost loved ones during this COVID crisis. I know already that there are discussions going on to ease visitation restrictions in our nursing homes and rest homes, because there has been significant success in getting vaccinations. We know how important human comfort is, and human closeness. And I’ll talk to Dr. Cohen. In fact, I’ll take what you’ve just said to me and talk with her again about it this morning. We talked about it, I think yesterday. So I think there’s going to be some easing of those restrictions, in order to be able to make sure that people can visit their loved ones and interact.
Governor Cooper: (35:25)
Speaker 12: (35:25)
Other states have been successful.
Governor Cooper: (35:25)
Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. And I’m really sorry for your loss. Other questions? All right, guys. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. [crosstalk 00:35:49].