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Senate Bill 654 limits when Durham public schools can provide remote instruction

<p>Durham's public schools have opted to remain remote until at least next semester.</p>

Durham's public schools have opted to remain remote until at least next semester.

Following the passage of Senate Bill 654, Durham public schools are no longer able to provide remote instruction, except for required student quarantines or insufficient school personnel due to COVID-19 exposures.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill in August 2021, and it came into effect as Omicron cases began to surge in the state and hospitals faced equipment and staffing shortages. Considering the infrequency of testing and the high rate of transmission of the Omicron variant, there are concerns for how effective this new law will be in stopping the spread of disease. 

“[SB 654] does not give us the ability to pre-emptively close, but only as a response to COVID-19 situations,” said Durham Public Schools spokeswoman Crystal Roberts. 

On the other side of the issue, parent group Children First North Carolina issued a joint statement urging schools to stay open. 

“Between a crushing epidemic of learning loss and deteriorating mental health, kids are suffering even more today than in 2020,” the group stated in response to an early wave in closures and a statewide drop in test scores.

Brandon Daniel, fifth grade teacher for Burton Magnet Elementary School and Durham Public Schools 2019-2020 teacher of the year, felt the issue was more nuanced. Schools in Durham have struggled, like many others, to sustain an engaged and present student body; Title I schools can be some of the most affected in a virtual learning environment, with student bodies where many parents are essential workers and many students face technical challenges.

“When we went strictly virtual, I still had to compete with other things. It's hard to compete with YouTube and Fortnite, but even then, there's a lot on students and their parents as well, especially at Title I schools,” Daniel said. 

Daniel says that he wants his “students to be able to learn in the best environment.” He cited students having to take care of their younger siblings' academic needs in addition to theirs or competing for bandwidth on a school-provided router as examples of additional burdens they faced with online learning.

“Even before COVID-19, as teachers we always want to make a safe space for students,” Daniel said. “Some students thrive in the virtual environment. Other times, it was hard to keep their attention.”

Prior to the bill, Durham Public Schools worked with the Durham Health Department, doctors and scientists from Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and community leaders before making virtual learning decisions. 

“I think it should be in the hands of communities, and they can make those decisions.” Daniel said. “If we’re making these decisions based on how many people are sick, then it’s already too late … If we can prevent something from happening rather than trying to react when it does happen, it would be a better situation for us all.” 

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