One of the oddest aspects of the debate over school reopening in North Carolina is that everybody wants the same thing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone — parent, student or teacher — who doesn’t prefer in-person instruction to remote learning.
Just ask and they’ll tell you:
Teaching remotely is harder. The hours are longer and the frustrations deeper.
It’s more difficult to engage students and definitely tougher to keep track of them.
Class plans have to be adapted, sometimes radically. What came naturally in the classroom doesn’t always easily translate to Zoom.
And making sure that at-risk students don’t lose touch and interest is hard enough in person. Try keeping those struggling students motivated and engaged through a computer screen.
The results bear out those concerns. In Guilford County, more and more students are falling behind and more are failing.
So, by all means, getting students back into their classrooms should be an urgent goal.
But not at the expense of safety.
That’s where Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature have reached an impasse.
The governor said last week that he was not willing to sign a bipartisan bill passed by the General Assembly that forces some type of in-person learning in all public school systems.
The main concern the governor expressed was that the bill does not follow state Department of Health and Human Services safety guidelines.
For instance, the bill requires masks but not social distancing for middle and high school students, which the DHHS guidelines prescribe.
Grocery stores and workplaces require social distancing, but not classrooms? There’s no reason for lawmakers not to fix that.
There’s also no reason for them not to put their wallets where their rhetoric is.
This bill amounts to yet another unfunded mandate for schools, with no resources attached to ensure safer reopenings.
Social distancing requires physical space, which isn’t readily available in many school buildings, especially older ones.
Social distancing also affects transportation to and from school. It will very likely call for more school buses and bus drivers. Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras has already noted a shortage of school bus drivers with only K-5 students attending school in person.
There are other concerns and potential costs for ventilation, testing and reconfiguring of cafeterias to allow for proper spacing.
The bill’s proponents cite a CDC report that promotes reopening schools.
But they tend to focus on this part: “Opening schools for in-person learning as safely and quickly as possible, and keeping them open, is important given the many known and established benefits of in-person learning.”
And not this part:
“In order to enable in-person learning and assist schools with their day-to-day operations, it is important to adopt and diligently implement actions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 inside the school and out in the community.”
Among the CDC's recommendations are upgrades, where needed, to ventilation and air filtration systems, possibly including "ultraviolet germicidal irradiation," which, the agency admits, will incur costs.
One need, thankfully, is about to be addressed. North Carolina schoolteachers and staff will be eligible for COVID vaccinations beginning Feb. 24.
It isn’t as if the state can’t afford to help pay for the costs of a safer reopening with $5 billion sitting in its rainy fund.
We also learned this week that the state collected $4.1 billion more in tax revenue in 2020 than projected. That’s billion with a “b.”
Also, the bill provides no flexibility for local communities. If an emergency arises, districts cannot deviate from the bill’s mandates without a new law from Raleigh.
Of course, all of this may soon become moot. Cooper said in a news conference on Thursday that 95 of the state’s 115 school systems already plan to resume in-person classes by mid-March.
In Guilford County, middle and high school students are scheduled to return to in-person classes in phases. Sixth and ninth graders were to return next week; seventh, 10th and 12th graders, the week of March 1. Eighth and 11th graders would return the week of March 8.
In any event, schools and teachers could use more resources and support from the state to ensure student and teacher safety.
If lawmakers are truly serious about reopening schools and are not simply trying to score political points, it’s time for them to put up or shut up.
If this bill is more than for show, then show us the money.