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We are all talking about it — reopening school. It’s in the news, it dominates my social media feed, and we talk about it over breakfast. As a mom of a kid on the autism spectrum, I am more cautious than most about closing down in-person instruction. I know firsthand the power of a good teacher and the social, emotional, and mental health services that schools can provide. 

However, I’ve also seen these services fail in the so-called best of times before the pandemic. We don’t adequately or equitably fund our schools. We failed our students, our teachers, and all our educators long before COVID-19. We should be talking about that at our breakfast tables too.

States around the country have struggled with fully funding public education. North Carolina stands out with proof of neglect in the form of the Leandro case. From that ruling came a court-appointed independent expert report from WestEd. For the first time in our state’s history, we see the evidence of neglect and inequities, but also a roadmap of funding and policy solutions to provide every child in our state a sound and basic education. Our legislature has yet to act on any of these solutions.

Teachers, students, and educators have experienced differing levels of support and none of them adequate for the task at hand. The pandemic only magnifies the problem. We can’t fight COVID-19 with a few Lysol wipes given to schools by the PTA. Our teachers will need better personal protective equipment than our Boxtop fundraising efforts can provide. We can’t let our inequalities in local funds cause the death of any of our teachers, staff, students, or their families.  That should be unacceptable to us all. Yet the state of North Carolina has failed to act. Not just this year, but for decades.

On July 9, Gov. Roy Cooper was asked the question, “How can you ensure there’s enough PPE for students and faculty, and how would the state distribute protective equipment to school systems statewide?” 

After Cooper mentioned the state and federal funds available, he said this, “And you know, we hope that individual people and businesses and nonprofits will also pitch in to help our schools. They do that anyway on school supplies and things that schools need, but now PPE will be something that schools need as well. So we hope people and members of the community will help step up and make sure that they have all that they need. We want to, as a state, also make sure our schools have all that they need.”

This goes to the heart of the Leandro Case. Where nonprofits and wealthy donors exist, our schools get better served. In areas where wealth is hard to find, our schools suffer. Watching this play out during the pandemic is heartbreaking. This is not a new problem, but now it is a deadly problem.

Let us not equivocate on who lives in those underserved areas. These are our Black and Brown children. They are fighting to say their lives matter. They are fighting against ICE and deportation. They are fighting for teachers who look like them and who speak their language. Who will ensure the additional funds they need to safely go back in their classrooms let alone get a sound basic education?

As debate over reopening schools rages, so must our call for fully funding our schools. We aren’t just dealing with pandemic. We are dealing with a crisis on top of a chronic underfunding of our public schools. The pandemic might seem overwhelming, but the steps to fix our public schools are not out of reach. The Leandro case gave us a roadmap, and now we need to follow it with our voices and our votes.

Susan Book

Susan Book is a public school advocate in Cary North Carolina. Book co-administrates Save Our Schools NC and is a member of Communities for the Education for Every Child. First and foremost, she is a mom of a wonderful boy on the autism spectrum and fights for her son to get a solid public education.