RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawmakers on Wednesday said a bill to compel a return to in-person instruction would not deprive school officials of their own discretion.

A key Senate committee endorsed the measure Wednesday morning. It would require all public K-12 schools in the state to resume in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. Bill sponsor Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga County, said parents would still have the option to keep their children home to learn remotely, and teachers would still be able to teach remotely if they felt they were at risk for COVID-19.

“I think it's important to understand that I have not changed any protocols within the criteria that has been outlined and authorized or in guidance by DHHS and the governor,” she said. “I'm just trying to get these kids back into the building.”

Gov. Roy Cooper closed all public K-12 schools on March 23 as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified. When the current school year began, schools were allowed to reopen under either an all-remote learning model (called Plan C by state officials) or using a mix of in-person and remote instruction (called Plan B). On Tuesday, Cooper urged all schools to resume at least some in-person instruction, though he stopped short of ordering classes to resume.

Although no members of the committee indicated outright opposition to the bill, several Democrats pressed Ballard on the question of local discretion. Pitt County Sen. Don Davis asked if superintendents would still have the authority to close all schools in their district if necessary, while Wake County's Jay Chaudhuri asked who would determine whether to accept a teacher's request to teach remotely. In both cases, Ballard said superintendents and local school officials would be able to make the final decision.

During testimony, Sarah Baker, a mother of three children in the Wake County school system, said remote learning has not worked at all for her son, James, who has severe intellectual disabilities. She said many children with special needs require physical interaction with their teachers, such as the teacher guiding their hand as they go through lessons. Baker said her son was able to receive in-person instruction for a couple of months last fall.

“If you had seen his face when he got on the bus that first day, he doesn't understand why his teachers are on the computer, but he did know what the school bus meant, and he was happier than I had seen him in a long time,” she said.

The N.C. Association of Educators has said reopening schools cannot be done safely unless teachers are vaccinated. NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement following Cooper's announcement the governor should push to get all teachers vaccinated by the end of the month. The NCAE has not yet responded to a request for comment on Ballard's bill.