It’s time for an honest conversation about race, COVID and school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg

As Mecklenburg County’s COVID metrics continue to spike, so do emotions around the debate over how public education should be handled during the pandemic. Some are concerned about the risk of holding classes in person at this time while others claim those safety concerns are misguided and outweighed by the harm of having students learn from home.

One common talking point used by those pushing for our schools to open for in-person instruction is that students of color are being disproportionately harmed by remote learning.

A lawsuit filed by five white plaintiffs against the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education and the North Carolina Association of Educators seeks to have the courts force CMS to “reestablish Active Instruction to the fullest extent permitted by the Governor of the State of North Carolina.”

The suit refers to the “unduly harsh effects” that remote instruction have on “minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged Students who have less access to technology, are provided less effective distance-learning, and are more heavily impacted by the lack of Active Instruction.”

It’s a line of reasoning that has been repeated over and over by individuals, the majority of them white, who have pressed our Board of Education to return CMS students to in-person instruction.

There is no question that we need to take a close look at the impact this pandemic is having on academic outcomes and how that is playing out along demographic lines. But it’s also important that our conversations about race and in-person vs. remote instruction are informed by actual data.

According to CMS’s beginning of the year School Diversity Report, total enrollment in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools breaks down thusly for the following groups:

African American and Hispanic: 63.9%
White: 25.8%

Here’s how enrollment in the Full Remote Academy looks for those same groups as of December 17:

African American and Hispanic: 70.8%
White: 15.3%

(*Please note that although I’m including numbers for only the three largest subgroups here, links for both reports above contain data for all subgroups)

Why is it that families of color might be opting for remote learning in relatively higher numbers than white families?

One reason is likely the disproportionate impact that COVID is having on communities of color.

Figures from the Center for Disease Control show that Latino and African American residents are three times as likely as white people to become infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it.

Systemic inequities that have been around since long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19 have placed those communities at increased risk of contracting the virus.

People of color are more likely to work in service and production jobs that can’t be done remotely. They are also less likely to have health insurance, and while insurance policies can be purchased on the open marketplace by those who don’t qualify for Medicaid, those policies come with huge deductibles and copays that effectively discourage people from seeking treatment when they need it.

Medical facilities that serve mostly lower-income patients are less likely to have the resources for effective COVID treatment, because their profit margins are small and they have to write off unpaid bills as charity.

All of these factors and more combine to make exposure to COVID a more threatening prospect for families of color than it is for white people. As we continue to engage in dialogue about how to educate our children during this pandemic, we need to keep that fact in mind.

Republican state legislators slam educators working virtually, calling 2020-21 “a wasted year” and “a disaster”

Rep. Craig Horn (l) and Sen. Rick Horner (r)

Two powerful–and outgoing–Republican state legislators slammed the work North Carolina educators are doing to keep learning going during a pandemic at a Tuesday meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

Representative Craig Horn, chair of the House K-12 Education Committee and the Education Appropriations Committee, referred to the pandemic as “a disaster for education.” Senator Rick Horner, chair of the Senate Education Committee and member of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, called 2020-21 “a wasted year.”

The comments are not sitting well with many North Carolina educators who are working tirelessly to provide students with an engaging learning experience during the most challenging time of their careers.

Michael Landers, a teacher in Cabarrus County, said, “Let’s temper the rhetoric and start something helpful for students and teachers. No one asked to be in this situation and no one chooses to educate in this way; but to have leaders, community members, and parents keep pushing this notion – it continues to undercut the valiant efforts of thousands of teachers each and every day.”

Craig Horn and Rick Horner are both on their way out after years of public service. Horn departs after a failed run for state superintendent, and Horner did not seek reelection after two terms in the Senate.

Both men served in the General Assembly during the Republican supermajority years which were, without question, a disaster for education. Both of them voted time and again for corporate and individual tax cuts which deprived public schools of billions of dollars in sorely-needed revenue. Both of them voted to eliminate retiree health benefits for all state employees hired beginning next month, making it harder to recruit teachers to North Carolina. Both of them have dutifully followed party leadership’s approach of thumbing noses at the Leandro ruling and recent WestEd report which outlined the many ways state legislators have failed to provide the education that is our students’ constitutional right.

Their concern about the state of public education in North Carolina has to be viewed through that lens.

In the case of Craig Horn, who has served a full decade in the House, it’s particularly ironic to hear criticism of online education efforts.

Last year, rather than using his leadership position to call on the General Assembly to commit resources to removing barriers to in-person Pre-K attendance, Horn championed the shockingly bad idea of having 4 year-old children of poverty attend virtual Pre-K. Keep in mind, that was before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.

Nobody asked for a pandemic to disrupt our normal education routines. Nobody is arguing that our students are better served through virtual learning. But the problem is the drumbeat about learning loss and wasted years is being used in an attempt to sway public opinion toward relaxing our guard against COVID at exactly the wrong time–when viral spread is frighteningly high and a vaccine is on the horizon.

North Carolina’s thousands of educators are doing the best they can to teach their students and stay alive right now. They deserve our respect and support.

To Representative Horn and Senator Horner, I say on behalf of those educators:

Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya.