Photo illustration by Amy Mitchell/Getty Images. Safe to Return?
Photo illustration by Amy Mitchell/Getty Images.

Schools around North Carolina are opening up for elementary school students even as the state draws attention for being in the COVID-19 “red zone.”

More school districts around the state are opening school buildings for in-person instruction but this is being done in spite of the still uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 and poor conditions of many school buildings.

For many educators like myself, these announcements to reopen school buildings feels like the hollow and premature pomp and circumstance of former President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment.

Just three weeks ago, Dr. Deborah Birx from the national coronavirus task force visited North Carolina to discuss our state’s status in the pandemic “red zone.”

READ MORE: “Learning Curve: COVID-Era Education in NC

After the meeting, NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen stated “Our top request from White House was prevention. We have one of the highest rates of spread in the country.”

Given the concern for our state’s “red zone” status and need to prevent spread of the virus, it is confusing to educators when, one week later, NC Gov. Roy Cooper announced local school districts could open classrooms for elementary school children with minimal social distancing requirements.

Delegating that decision across 115 local school boards, many who are meeting via videoconference, a week after a visit from one of the leaders of the national coronavirus task force is unsettling. 

Our state’s motto, Esse quam videri,  is “To be rather than to seem.” 

While reopening school buildings may seem to allow communities a sense of normalcy, it’s hard to see how it actually moves us out of the pandemic or “red zone” status.

Local communities should beware celebrating reopening of school buildings as “Mission Accomplished” and recalibrate the mission to instead keep the virus at bay as other developed countries have done.  Allowing pandemic fatigue to influence public policy is not a long-term strategy to defeat the pandemic and has proven counterproductive.  

Too Much at Risk Right Now 

The case that has been made for reopening school buildings for in-person instruction is not that schools are healthy, but that the benefit of in-person instruction outweighs the risk.  Keep in mind that risk is the health of staff, students and their families.  Those making these statements, often times in virtual environments, are not absorbing that risk.

We work in petri dishes so the claim that children don’t efficiently spread this particular virus defies what we’ve regularly witnessed in our classrooms with other illnesses shared across school buildings and has been met with skepticism.  

Two days ago that skepticism was validated in a study out of India identifying children as efficient spreaders of COVID-19. 

During Wednesday’s press conference announcing North Carolina will  move into Phase 3, Cohen said “We are going to need to double down on our work in order to slow this virus down.”  

I am sincerely confused about how the continued lifting of precautionary measures squares with Cohen’s calls for a doubled-down effort to slow the virus.

By advocating for a safe return to classrooms that doesn’t perpetuate the pandemic, educators are not throwing in the towel, they’re raising red flags. The extent to which policymakers across levels of government have been receptive to our lens for practically designing and implementing plans has been disappointing. 

We take our roles as in loco parentis seriously as we are tasked with the responsibility for the well-being of students in our care.  As such our conscience restricts many of us from putting lipstick on a pig by reassuring families that school buildings are ready for in-person instruction during a pandemic.

There has been a lot of interest in whether or not doctors are sending their children to school buildings.  Has anyone thought to ask educators which learning plan they’ve selected for their own children?

Fulfilling in loco parentis obligations by publicly expressing our concerns is not a new exercise for educators.

NC Schools Not Equipped to Fight Virus

Even before the pandemic, North Carolina’s schools were $8 billion behind in facility needs such as renovations.  Many students throughout the state learn in trailers.  

For years we’ve advocated for a statewide school bond to address these needs but NC Senate leader Phil Berger refuses to put a bond on the ballot and allow voters to have their say.

During the last recession, custodial positions were cut and remain understaffed today.  We were told in the last recession these cuts were needed to temporarily tighten belts. When the economy recovered, we were told there was no money to address needs like this despite affording tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.

Last year public school supporters marched in part to support providing each school with a full-time nurse and advocated for hiring more counselors, psychologists and social workers to meet recommended ratios.  

We needed them before the pandemic. 

We need them even more now, yet these needs are ignored among Republican leadership in the NC General Assembly.

Educators, many of whom are parents themselves, want to safely return to in-person instruction.  But as long as too many define reopening as “Mission Accomplished” we will continue to live with “uncontrolled spread” that prevents us from achieving the goal of ending the pandemic in our communities.