By Justin Parmenter —7th grade English teacher and education advocate in Charlotte, NC. He writes about education and North Carolina politics at NotesfromtheChalkboard.com, and you can find him on Twitter at @JustinParmenter.
North Carolina schools are, for the moment, expected to return in August, coronavirus or not.
Two of the three options outlined in North Carolina’s official school re-opening guide would involve in-person classes with some level of social distancing as well as enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
But operating schools under these conditions will require considerable resources and — regardless of what safety procedures the state puts in place — will increase the risk of anyone who works in a public school contracting COVID-19.
A bill filed by Democrats in the North Carolina Senate — Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, Sen. Terry Van Duyn and Sen. Harper Peterson — would take an initial step toward addressing safety concerns looming with the scheduled return of public schools in August.
SB 839 would provide an additional $5 per hour in hazard pay to all public school employees, including teachers, instructional support personnel, principals, assistant principals, and non-certified staff, through Dec. 31, 2020. The legislation would also appropriate $75 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) for those same employees.
The $145 million total cost of the bill would come from money provided by the CARES Act which was passed by the federal government in March. The North Carolina General Assembly is currently sitting on roughly $2 billion in federal CARES money that has to be spent by the end of the calendar year.
Plans on paper and life inside a school building are often two very different things, and successfully getting any number of excitable children to stay 6 feet apart “at all times in school facilities and on school transportation vehicles” and consistently washing their hands — as the state’s reopening guide recommends —seems next to impossible to this veteran teacher.
That’s why school districts across the country are scrambling to come up with estimates on how much it will cost them to conduct in-person classes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
An analysis by the School Superintendent’s Association and the Association of School Business Officials International found it would require approximately $490 per student to cover PPE, cleaning supplies, additional custodial staff and other COVID-related expenses.
For my district (Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools) that would come out to a staggering $72.5 million.
To date the state has allocated just over $30 million in CARES funding to CMS.
“Our educators have gone above and beyond for our children and it is imperative we equip them with the tools and resources they need to protect not only themselves but also the most vulnerable, our kids,” Sen. Mohammed, the Charlotte Democrat who sponsored the bill, told me. “[Our kids] deserve the best and they deserve to be safe. Their health and wellness should be the General Assembly’s first priority and this bill points us in the right direction.”
But using federal dollars to provide educators with some additional funds while they are working under extraordinary circumstances would allow the legislature to do something without adversely impacting our state’s bottom line.
Even though history tells us that a bill with only Democratic sponsorship doesn’t have a strong chance of passing, SB 839 is a great model for how state lawmakers should be approaching public education ahead of next school year.
They should acknowledge the risk public school employees will be taking when schools reopen and take real steps to mitigate that danger.