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Florence impact makes attending teacher rally tough call for some educators

In the wake of Hurricane Florence’s devastation to the southeastern counties of North Carolina, teachers — like their neighbors — were left assessing damage to their homes and figuring out their road to recuperation. As they rebuilt, they wondered about their students and their schools.

“Everybody kept asking me about their kids and when they could get back,” said Tony Britt, principal of Gilbert Carroll Middle School in Robeson. “I know some of [the teachers] were in touch with their students and saw them.”

Today, many of those same teachers are faced with a tough choice: Join their fellow teachers in Raleigh to rally, or remain in their classrooms to teach those children who missed so much class time after Florence.

In some of these counties, students missed as many as 30 school days because of Florence. With state law mandating a minimum number of school days and/or instructional hours for a student’s successful completion of a grade, and with state law also setting the school year’s end, making up days has been a challenge.

The General Assembly forgave up to 20 of those days with Senate Bill 2 during an emergency session, but in districts like Duplin, Onslow, and Pender, students missed as many as 30 days. In Robeson and Jones counties, they missed 24 and 25 days, respectively. 

Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

In Pender County, district leaders worked to make sure students did not miss class on May 1. They, like many in surrounding districts, asked teachers to appoint delegates to voice their concerns in Raleigh rather than attending the rally themselves.

“Pender County Schools is committed to providing students and staff members with the necessary resources needed to foster the highest quality learning environment,” the school board stated in a release. “As the N.C. Association of Educators’ May 1 rally in Raleigh approaches, district officials are currently in discussion with others on the appropriate course of action to ensure instruction at our 18 school campuses remains unchanged while allowing district employees to engage in their constitutional rights.”

Of the nine school districts hit hardest, only two closed for May 1 — New Hanover and Robeson. In those districts, there seemed to be a majority positive reaction from parents on social media supporting the teachers but steadfast opposition to making up days. This was especially true in New Hanover, where all 17 days of school missed due to Florence could have been forgiven under SB2. Instead, the district pushed for makeup days and extended class times to make sure students got all of the instructional hours they could.

“Closing schools on May 1st is a difficult decision,” Superintendent Tim Markley said. “Our students lost nearly three weeks of school after Hurricane Florence, and we do not want them to have to miss any more time; however, with over 400 teachers and staff who have already put in leave requests and more are expected, we cannot safely operate the schools on May 1st.”

Hurricane Florence caused widespread damage to homes in New Hanover County. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

A tug-of-war between the North Carolina Association of Educators, which is organizing the rally, and some state leaders has been ongoing for weeks. State Superintendent Mark Johnson, along with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, criticized the NCAE for its decision to organize the rally on a day when teachers will be forced to leave behind students, asking instead that they visit the capitol on a non-school day.

“Weather hit us hard this year, and I do not want to encourage any more students missing any more school days,” Johnson said in a press release. “It’s not good for students’ academic and nutritional needs, or for our bus drivers and some other non-certified staff, who may miss scheduled work hours and, as a result, pay. As you consider the different ways you can influence your state government, I ask that as an alternative to Wednesday, May 1, you consider taking action on a day when schools are not in session.”

The NCAE, in the meantime, said having the rally now sends the loudest message and puts emphasis on the reasons for rallying. NCAE President Mark Jewell said that, had these concerns been addressed in the legislature, there would be no need for missed class time.

“Superintendent Johnson underestimates the critical needs that face our public schools today,” Jewell said. “Time is of the essence so that we do not lose a generation of students with underfunded, starving, under-resourced public schools. The state legislature sets the schedule for the budget process, and our rally is meant to impact the budget discussions as early as possible.

Educators from all over North Carolina are requesting personal days in order to advocate for our students and public education. Last year, 30,000 public education supporters lifted their voices up in support of our legislative priorities. Our advocacy for our students must continue. We look forward to our friends and allies joining us again this year.”

NCAE’s five-point agenda calls for funding to meet national standards for school support staff, a $15 minimum wage for school personnel, a 5% raise for all school employees and a 5%  cost-of-living adjustment for retirees, expansion of Medicaid, restoration of state retiree health benefits for teachers hired after 2021, and the return of master’s pay. 

At least one of those demands — restoration of master’s pay — is included in the House budget, which will be debated in House appropriations today while the rally is taking place. The budget also includes an average pay increase for teachers of 4.8% in the first year of the biennium.

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC. He exists to shine light, including by telling stories about under-reported issues.