We’re NC Lawmakers. There Are No Perfect Options for Reopening Schools.

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By Rep. Ashton Clemmons, Rep. Graig Meyer

July 20, 2020

Options for reopening NC schools after coronavirus are limited by inadequate state funding for North Carolina’s public school systems.

(Editor’s Note: Cardinal & Pine has reached out to North Carolina lawmakers from both parties to talk about the challenges associated with reopening schools. The following is an op-ed from two such lawmakers.)

The question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is, “Should we go back to school?”

Honest answer: There are no perfect options for how to return to traditional schooling during the pandemic. 

We are two members of the General Assembly who became Representatives while working in schools. Our thoughts these days are very much with our educator colleagues who are trying to find the best solution to safely reopen schools during the COVID pandemic.

We know the limitations of aging school facilities and constantly thinning budgets. We know the children whose parents are essential workers or those who do not have internet at home. 

We hear from parents worried about their children’s emotional well-being and see the impact of our children not being with friends and lacking daily structure. 

Schools are so vital to who we are – so much more than imparting academic standards to students. They are fundamental to our children’s emotional well-being and our economy as well.  

Governor Cooper and leaders in his administration have worked to find a solution that balances the social and emotional needs of our children with prudent policy that slows the spread of COVID-19. 

Unfortunately, the options we have to re-open safely are severely limited by the inadequate support we already provide to public schools after a decade of the current legislative leadership that has left schools neglected and teachers’ exhausted.

If we as a country truly valued schools for all they give our children, we would ask our educators, “What do you need to open safely for as many children as possible?” And we would do everything in our power to make it so. 

Unfortunately, we have not done either of these things.  

In the best of economic times, North Carolina has been sending our children and educators to schools with leaking roofs, caving floors, and history textbooks older than our students.  After reaching a high in 2008, the percentage of our gross state product that goes to public school funding has declined every year since. 

Is it any surprise that both parents and educators are concerned about schools reopening during a pandemic when most schools do not even have a full-time nurse and teachers are forced to pay for disinfecting products from their own pocket?

Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, our educators are working harder than ever to provide all of North Carolina’s children with a quality education, and their efforts are being met with meager concessions and a lack of care from some Republican leaders.

So, what should we do?

Whenever we do go back to school, we need to consider two important factors. 

First, if we’re going to risk virus spreading in the community, we need to restrict exposure elsewhere. Like a household budget, if we are exposing children and adults in our schools, we should limit our risks in other places.  We can all make a return to school more successful by adhering to public health guidance like wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary community spread.

Second, we must fully fund what is required to ensure safe learning conditions. This must include sufficient space in schools so that children are socially distanced and ensuring staff have personal protective equipment. These first steps require significant funds. We will need to rely on the federal government to budget for schools to reopen, and our state should ensure those resources flow directly to our schools and stand ready to help as things inevitably change.  

Students and families that still don’t feel safe should be provided remote learning options, a priority of Governor Cooper’s as well. And this must include support for families that do not currently have access to online learning.

Our state is safer and healthier when our schools work as they should.  Our schools cannot fulfill their role for supporting the state unless they are safe and healthy as well.  Children across North Carolina, their families, and the educators who love them deserve nothing less.


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