How COVID-19 has exacerbated existing public school needs

Returning to in-person instruction for WCPSS students and staff is the most difficult policy decision the school board has made in many years, as shown in the multiple angst-fraught discussions the board held recently.

That said, the goal has always been to get students back in the classroom, and WakeEd supports that effort as long as two things remain true: 1. That public health officials say that in-person instruction is safe, and 2. That schools have the resources to maintain a safe learning environment.

With clearance from Gov. Roy Cooper and public health officials, schools have been able to resume some form of in-person learning since Aug. 17, and more recently pre-K to fifth grades were approved for full, daily in-person instruction.

That second condition is trickier. It can be met under current conditions with the resources WCPSS has today, but sustaining that over time will require persistent funding, use of human resources, and access to cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

This is where confidence in the system starts to break down for many inside and out of the schools. That’s not because there’s a lack of confidence in the school system, but in those who fund the schools.

Based on findings in last year’s WestEd Report that was part of the long-running Leandro lawsuit, the state has not adequately funded public education for more than two decades. Local tax dollars have increasingly made up the difference in counties like Wake, but that’s not possible in all 115 school districts.

As Superintendent Cathy Moore noted in a recent school board meeting, the lack of adequate state funding has taxed local resources and limited the school district’s ability to hire enough staff to meet the diverse academic and social/emotional needs of its student body Responding to COVID-19 to resume in-person instruction has only exacerbated those needs.

Most importantly, there is not a registered nurse in every school in Wake County, something which was common across North Carolina even before the pandemic made this very important need a critical issue.

Nurses in Wake County, whose positions are funded by both state and county tax dollars, divide their time among 2-3 school sites, which last year meant about one nurse for every 1,689 students, as explained in an ABC11 story. Funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners does help to supplement nursing positions more than some other counties do, but it isn’t meant to be a major local responsibility.

Neither is funding instructional assistant positions. Wake County’s local funding has included money for instructional assistant positions, but that hasn’t completely shielded the school system from losing hundreds of people in these roles since 2015, following drastic cuts in state funding by the General Assembly.

In all, it was estimated then that statewide schools would lose nearly 40 percent, or 8,500, of the assistant positions across the state, according to WRAL’s reporting at the time.

Nurses and instructional assistants are critical now to keeping kids on track and safe during the new routines and expectations of in-person instruction, and those positions just aren’t there.

They might be if school districts had the ability to transfer funds from one spending account to another, a practice known as converting funds. This practice has been highly restricted by the General Assembly in recent years, making it more difficult for local officials to put money where the needs are the greatest.

Savings in one area due to efficiency or underutilization cannot be transferred to other areas of increasing need and importance. Superintendents and school board leaders across the state asked the General Assembly for greater funding flexibility for this school year, but that permission didn’t materialize in any of the COVID-19-response legislation that was passed.

All of these might be made better if WCPSS were able to keep reserves, commonly referred to as a fund balance. These reserves are unrestricted funds are local tax dollars carried over from one fiscal year to another.

At one time, the WCPSS fund balance was more than $100 million, but several years ago, amid insistence from both state and local leaders, WCPSS spent that reserve down to less than $10 million. It costs about $5 million per day, under normal circumstances, to run WCPSS.

Since all of these needs were widely reported before anyone ever thought about a global pandemic changing everything, it’s reasonable to believe that legislators would’ve understood the urgency and wanted to increase spending in these areas during the pandemic.

That’s not what happened. State legislators instead spent the federal funds provided by the CARES act while refusing to use the state’s own “rainy day” funds to supplement spending in areas made worse by COVID-19.

Confidence will always be shaky until our community can put COVID-19 behind us, so we have to find new ways of doing things. School is one of them, but it’s difficult to foresee the outcome. It would be easier if our schools had adequate funding and spending flexibility before the pandemic started or were bolstered by relief legislation. Therefore, it’s up to the community to ensure our schools are safe learning spaces by wearing masks, waiting six feet, and washing our hands, as well as keeping home the kids who show illness symptoms.

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