In 1969, famed children's television personality Fred Rogers, better known as "Mister Rogers," passionately defended funding for children's educational programming before a US Senate subcommittee. (Image via screenshot) Mister Rogers in Washington
In 1969, famed children's television personality Fred Rogers, better known as "Mister Rogers," passionately defended funding for children's educational programming before a US Senate subcommittee. (Image via screenshot)

The beloved television personality passionately understood the role of a well-funded public education system. Why don’t North Carolina lawmakers?   

What would Mister Rogers say?

In 1969, the beloved television personality testified before a Senate subcommittee to defend funding for public media programming such as his children’s show.  

In seven minutes of testimony, he successfully convinced the committee to continue funding public media instead of shifting it to funding the Vietnam War.  If he was alive today, would lawmakers be as receptive to such an appeal?

Even before the pandemic, public school educators and parents have met with local, state, and national officials to encourage them to restore support for public schools in spirit and in substance.  

The pandemic has reinforced the important role public schools serve in our communities, but instead of recognizing that role with renewed support, some are choosing to kick schools while they’re down.

In North Carolina, lawmakers passed a coronavirus relief bill last week that packaged some relief for public schools with expansion of an unpopular private school voucher program and enrollment in poorly-rated virtual charter schools even though districts in the state offer an all-virtual instruction option.

Putting the cart before the horse, Republicans in the US Senate even required schools to reopen for in-person instruction in order to qualify for most of the education aid offered in the HEALS Act.  Making funding conditional on reopening buildings regardless of community COVID-19 conditions leaves districts in a no-win situation.

Like many teachers, I miss the energy and dynamics of being in a classroom with students, but I don’t regret pushing back on seeing my colleagues, students or my own children return to buildings with inadequate HVAC and funding while facing a novel airborne virus.

A relative of mine, who is also a teacher, resumed in-person classes this week after school leadership chastised the staff’s reluctance to return by saying students’ mental health was at risk by remaining in remote instruction.  

Despite this concern for emotional welfare, students, staff and parents entering campus were greeted with a “WARNING” sign informing them they were accepting the risk of injury or death from contracting COVID-19 by entering the property.  Apparently for some school leaders, moral obligation is tied only to legal liability.

But here’s where they’re wrong. 

Advocating for remote instruction is not abdicating the emotional well-being of children.  It is protecting that well-being by avoiding preventable “injury or death,” and preserving the association of in-classroom learning as a community, not a cubicle.  

Parents helping their children navigate remote learning must remember that frustrations experienced at home on their watch would not disappear because a child is out of their sight in a classroom.

Throughout his three-decade run on television, Mister Rogers focused heavily on the emotional well-being of children.  

And just as he competed with nutritionless cartoons, educators compete against dopamine-laced apps for students’ attention.  The creativity of educators, vigilance of parents and caretakers, and resilience of students have combined to revive education during a pandemic.

Our temporary arrangement of school-by-screen also offers parents a window into life in classes that have changed greatly from the time they were their child’s age.  Current pedagogy prioritizes what students can do with what they know instead of emphasizing production of walking, talking flashcards.

At a time where people are separated by a pandemic and divided by politics, the resumption of a school routine, even if it looks different, is a welcome steady presence amidst broader uncertainties.

But education is an investment in the development of our next generation, not a product in and of itself.  Mister Rogers fought to save his supplemental education program during the Vietnam War. We must be just as vigilant in protecting the health and funding of our students and public schools during a pandemic.