NC Teacher Head: Trump’s Demands for In-Person Schooling ‘Disconnected’ from Reality

The head of NC's largest teacher group says President Trump's demands for in-person schooling are "disconnected" from reality. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Billy Ball

July 17, 2020

NC Association of Educators president says state’s teachers might not be comfortable with a classroom return for ‘a long time.’ 

The head of North Carolina’s largest teacher advocacy organization says President Trump’s demands for in-person schooling are “disconnected from the real, on-the-ground situations” in the state’s public schools. 

“They are not grounded in science,” said NC Association of Educators (NCAE) President Tamika Walker Kelly. “They are not grounded in the expertise of health officials. They are very dismissive of the very real dangers it poses.”

Kelly, a music teacher in Cumberland County, spoke to Cardinal & Pine a day after a White House official re-emphasized Trump’s calls for a full reopening of schools in August. 

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“When he says open, he means open in full, kids being able to attend each and every day in their school,” White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Thursday. “The science should not stand in the way of this.”

‘It could be a very real thing that we can’t return to in-person instruction for a long time.’

Trump officials and US Senate Republicans are reportedly considering tying billions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds to a mandate that schools return for in-person lessons, a move that’s likely to clash with the calls from Democrats in Congress and state and local government leaders like Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Cooper has given school districts the option to choose remote learning in the coming year, and several large systems have already announced plans to do so at least at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. 

RELATED: Facing Billion-Dollar Budget Shortfall, Gov. Cooper to US Congress: ‘Do More, as Quickly as Possible’

Educators, including Kelly, acknowledged that research indicates in-person lessons are more effective than virtual classes.

“Teachers know the value of in-person instruction,” said Kelly. “It is critically important. If these were typical circumstances, you would see educators advocating to be back in classrooms with the kids they love, but we are in the middle of a pandemic and it’s very dangerous.”

The NCAE president added that with a vaccine likely still months away, it’s unclear when educators will be comfortable with returning to a classroom.

“The trends are not very reassuring to educators and public health officials alike,” she said. “And it takes a long time to develop that vaccine. It could be a very real thing that we can’t return to in-person instruction for a long time.”

As Cardinal & Pine has reported, virtual learning faces some infrastructure hurdles to overcome, including a lack of access to the Internet in many homes owing to gaps in the state’s broadband infrastructure and families’ varying socioeconomic status. 

But those concerns should not trump the safety of teachers and students, Kelly said.

“It is important to note these issues existed prior to COVID,” she said. “We shouldn’t wave the flag of equity to force us back into unsafe conditions.”

NC’s coronavirus infections have been trending in the wrong direction for weeks. Cases and hospitalizations are still on the rise, with the latter being perhaps the most concerning metric for state officials. The state has now confirmed more than 95,000 coronavirus cases, and less than a quarter of in-patient and intensive care unit beds remain open as of Friday, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services.  

Cooper urged federal lawmakers Friday to  “do more, as quickly as possible” to pay for the needs of schools, and state and local government. The state is expecting a $1.25 billion revenue shortfall this fiscal year, and Cooper wrote in a letter Thursday that, even if COVID-19 were wiped out soon, the state would not return to expected 2020 revenue levels until at least 2023. 

Polls have indicated North Carolinians are split on how and when to resume K-12 education. Republican leadership such as Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger have indicated they believe it will be safe to reopen fully. Some early research has indicated children tend to fare better with coronavirus and might be less likely to catch it. 

“If you’re practicing the social distancing and doing all the other things, it just strikes me that that’s not a higher-risk situation,” Berger told WRAL Thursday.

The American Academy of Pediatrics initially recommended in-person learning for school reopening, but the organization has tempered that guidance in recent days, saying local officials should make the decision based on science and coronavirus trends.

“Schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts,” the AAP said in a statement this week. “A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

Kelly indicated Friday that she believes NC schools might be better equipped to grapple with a virtual reopening in August than they were in March, when Cooper ordered all schools closed. 

“We were really in a crisis mode,” said Kelly. “Spring was challenging. What we have now is the opportunity to address those issues that arose in the spring with being very careful and deliberate. And reaching out to our families and getting an assessment of their needs and working with our state legislators and corporations who have the ability to create that access.”


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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