School reopening: Legislative leaders are simply too cheap to do it right

House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R)

In case you missed it earlier this week, be sure to check out an excellent editorial that ran on on entitled “Resources for school health, safety must be part of in-person mandate.” As the editorial rightfully observes, everyone wants schools to fully reopen, but wanting something to happen and really doing what’s necessary to make it happen in a safe and sustainable way are two very different things.

Here’s the editorial assessing a school reopening bill that Republicans are racing through the General Assembly this week:

Like too many things the General Assembly’s demanded, this legislation failed to provide the needed resources to make good on the mandate and assure classrooms are safe for teachers, other school staff and students.

There’s no money in the bill to pay for the most basic necessities such as:

  • More teachers, so there could be, as necessary for appropriate social distancing, fewer students per class.
  • Additional transportation resources so students would be properly socially distant to-and-from school.
  • Appropriate space and facilities for safe preparation, distribution and consumption of school meals.
  • Adequate nurses, staffing each open school, to provide and respond to on-site health needs (even before the pandemic, fewer than 27% of NC middle and high schools had a full-time school nurse).
  • Regular on-site COVID-19 testing to spot potential outbreaks and deal with them before they become super-spreaders.

This is not extravagant. It is necessary. It is the precaution that those who advocate return to in-person learning say is prudent and must be taken.

The need for such steps ought to be blatantly obvious to anyone paying attention to what’s happening on the ground. As Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras observed during a Tuesday panel hosted by the Hunt Institute and reported this afternoon by NC Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress, it’s easy enough to order teachers and other school personnel back to school, but it’s much harder to keep them healthy and not running for the exits out of a constant fear for their health and well-being:

“I know so many are dependent on us to get these schools reopened safely as soon as possible but the logistics of doing so when there is so much fear out there, it’s difficult,” Contreras said.

She said educators must become a vaccination priority in every state.

“The fear our staff has, it’s been difficult to overcome that barrier for superintendents,” Contreras said.

Of course the truly maddening thing about all of this is that North Carolina has plenty of cash on hand to help address the challenges our schools face. As the WRAL editorial noted:

It isn’t a question about the money. There are billions, as much as $5 billion idle taxpayer dollars sitting as unreserved cash, available to pay for many of these needs. What are they saving this money for? The rainy days, rainy-day funds are created for, are here.

The bottom line: As has been their wont for years in so many ways (e.g. their refusal to save thousands of lives by expanding Medicaid), Phil Berger, Tim Moore and the other Republicans running the General Assembly are putting the lives and health of our children and frontline education workers at unnecessary risk because they care more about right-wing ideology on fiscal policy than their fellow human beings. It’s a shameful situation.

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