This teacher says NC schools are not ready to reopen in August. (Image via Shutterstock.) NC schools reopening
This teacher says NC schools are not ready to reopen in August. (Image via Shutterstock.)

North Carolina leaders must set clear rules, not recommendations, for reopening schools. And then fund them. 

One of the first concepts I teach my high school seniors in the Civics and Economics course is the distinction between “duty” and “responsibility.”

A duty is something one must do, whereas a responsibility is something one should do but is not required.

Serving on a jury is a duty.  Without a legal requirement that trumps individual convenience, juries would be disproportionately composed of people willing and able to participate.  Since it is in the best interest of the community to have a justice system that includes a representative cross section of that community, the interest of the community legally outweighs individual situations such as missing work.

Voting is a responsibility.  Because it is something people should do but are not required to, 69% of registered voters in NC cast their ballot in 2016, the most recent presidential election year.  During the most recent midterm election in 2018, only 53% participated.

It seems we are re-evaluating where obligations should fall under each category on a variety of fronts, in large part because voluntary compliance is not always effective in adequately fulfilling those commitments.

New social studies curriculum standards are in their third draft and awaiting approval from the State Board of Education.  Even before recent amplification of the need to include historically oppressed Black voices in the story of our nation’s history, the Department of Public Instruction was tasked with ensuring diverse perspectives are reflected in the social studies curriculum.  

When the latest version of the draft was discussed at the June 4 State Board of Education meeting, members expressed concern at the lack of elevation of this expectation as a duty, not a responsibility.

Matthew Bristow-Smith, the state’s Principal of the Year, expressed concern that terms such as slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement and immigration are not explicitly mentioned in the proposed standards.  

He rightfully points out this will leave the standards open to interpretation. North Carolina’s 115 school districts would each “construct their own American History narratives.”

James E. Ford noted “race isn’t mentioned, but involuntary migration is” and the standards need to “incorporate perspectives deliberately beyond saying ‘diversity.’”

As a result, the Board rightfully postponed approving the standards until more explicit language is included. Those standards should reflect the commitment to a more comprehensive understanding of history beyond a whitewashed lens. 

More ambiguities. 

‘There’s been a lot of buck-passing when it comes to funding school reopening needs.’ 

On June 8, North Carolina released its “Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (K-12)” with guidance on safely reopening public school buildings.  

Instead of listing duties to ensure safe reopening, we find loosely worded “requirements” and vague “recommendations.”  

When it’s a mere recommendation — one not paired with a funding commitment — that schools maintain social distancing, ensure proper ventilation, and staff each campus with school nurses,  we are not seriously preparing for reopening school buildings.   

There’s been a lot of buck-passing when it comes to funding school reopening needs.  

It is as though funding for reopening schools is treated as a political hot potato with suggestions instead of mandates. Lawmakers can tell communities: “We’re not making you do anything so pay for your choices yourself.” 

Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis are in ‘wait and see’ mode to determine if local governments and school districts actually need federal aid offered by the HEROES Act passed by the US House last month.  

Apparently the US Senate views it as a “duty” to offer economic assistance to individuals and businesses, but funding local government services and reopening school buildings is an optional “responsibility.”

US Rep. Virginia Foxx has dismissed supporting school reopening with federal aid as either a duty or responsibility. 

“I’m a student of the Constitution,” Foxx has said. “And I’ve read it many times and I’ve failed to find the word ‘education’ in there.”

Education is, of course, explicitly mentioned in the North Carolina Constitution.  The 1997 Leandro decision confirmed the state’s duty to provide a “sound basic education” to North Carolina’s children and called out our state’s failure to fulfill this mandate.

The Constitution applies the same in pandemics and in health, in good economic times and in bad.  Regardless of the economic cycle, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger has failed to move the General Assembly closer to fulfilling its constitutional duty even when the path is spelled out in a court-ordered consultant’s report.

As a teacher of high school seniors, students occasionally play the “I’m an adult” freedom card when told to do something they don’t feel like doing.  

This pushback is developmentally appropriate for an 18-year old, but unsettling when complacency in fulfilling duties and freedom to make poor choices is championed by more seasoned adults. 

As in loco parentis, I remind students they are allowed to make choices, but when they make irresponsible choices it is my duty as their teacher to warn them of the consequences and encourage them to make a better choice. 

When it comes to doing what’s best for our communities, what choice do we really have?