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What students need post-hurricane: The structure of school

The letter that 10 school superintendents sent this week to Gov. Roy Cooper and state legislators makes two especially strong points: 1) that their districts essentially face re-starting the school year in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and 2) that their students will need more time in school to propel education progress.

The letter went out as the General Assembly prepares for a special post-hurricane session that will consider whether to “forgive’’ or “waive’’ missed instructional days in hard-hit districts. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and House Speaker Tim Moore have backed the idea of not requiring make up of missed days.

It is surely appropriate for elected officials to seek to ease burdens of citizens, businesses, farms, and public institutions in hurricane-inflicted distress. Still, for the sake of students and their future as productive citizens, the effective response runs in the direction of more school, not less school.

The issue arises at a moment of increased concern over chronic absenteeism (as EdNC has explored throughout this week). North Carolina defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of the required 185 class days. It seems inconsistent for a legislature that has sought to encourage school attendance to enact a sort of absenteeism by reducing days of attendance.

The local school superintendents have it right: “We would like the option to extend our school year beyond June 9, 2019 to enable us to ensure that our students get the time needed to recover from this traumatic event and get the instruction they need to continue making progress towards their academic goals.”

Schools are, first of all, education spaces, where teachers and students interact. Schools are also communities, safe spaces where young people get to know peers and where they find adult guidance. For the many thousands North Carolina students for poor households, schools are also places where they get one or two assured meals.

Hurricanes rain down on the just and unjust, the rich and the poor. But it’s also a fact of North Carolina life that distressed people and places, in low-lying land, are especially vulnerable to storm-induced flooding. The superintendents point to how “complicated’’ their task is to reassemble the education enterprise with so many displaced teachers and students.

“At the time of this storm, we were a little over two weeks into the new school year,” they write. “When we return, we will begin our school year over again….The only true and humane option is to enable us to have the flexibility to make these decisions locally so that we can respond to the localized needs in each community.”

If, as likely, there are costs to extending, rather than constricting, time in school, the governor and legislators can add what’s needed into the overall hurricane-recovery package. This is a moment for teacher- and student-centered decision-making — to focus on what’s good for teachers, and especially students in the near-term emergency and in their life-prospects beyond.

A footnote: Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward deserves a salute for initiating that bipartisan gathering of former superintendents and education leaders to promote a fund for citizens to contribute to school recovery from hurricane and flooding. Ward and his spouse, Methodist Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, lived in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and they learned lessons valuable to North Carolina now. To contribute, go here.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.