To the North Carolina General Assembly:

This past week, community members were made aware of an email that was sent to teachers in Durham Public Schools. The email gave teachers who did not want to come back in person three options. The first provided them with ways to take a leave of absence (taking medical leave, family leave, temporary extension of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act). The other two were resignation or retirement. The email ended with, “it is our goal in Human Resources to support you through the tough decisions that many may face.” 

Surprisingly, teachers in this district are not the first to receive information like this. Districts across the state are being forced into in-person learning by state mandates and, in turn, are having to prioritize those decisions over concerns from their staff. Organizations like the North Carolina Association of Educators have advocated relentlessly for safe conditions to return to. But rather than receiving a comprehensive plan, teachers waited in limbo as legislators passed bills that neglected to include them in vaccination efforts.

These “tough decisions” are no doubt being forced onto teachers. As future educators, it is concerning that we may be entering work environments that pose ultimatums rather than listening to our concerns. It is concerning that districts are telling teachers to leave their position. It is concerning that decisions are being made on behalf of teachers and their students without considering their concerns. We fear that putting teachers in this position will cause our state to lose valuable talent. North Carolina currently has a 7.5 percent teacher turnover rate, which is the lowest we’ve had in years. But pushing teachers out of their jobs will no doubt cause this number to rise.

We understand that COVID-19 has put schools in a difficult position. In addition to the stress of online learning, school communities are dealing with broader impacts of the pandemic (loss of family members, housing and food insecurity, job and income loss) that make it difficult to adapt to these changes. But teachers are not asking for you to neglect these problems. They are asking that you take time to understand them.

Schools are inadequately equipped to handle these issues during a normal school year. The pandemic has exacerbated issues like mental health for students, but it has also exposed significant problems in our education system’s resources. The recommended ratio for school psychologists is one for every 500-700 students. North Carolina only has one for 1,800 students. The recommended ratio for school social workers is one for every 250 students. North Carolina only has one for every 1,289 students. The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students. North Carolina only has one for every 353 students. The bottom line is that students will not have the resources they need to return because they never did. Sending students back to school does not address the host of pandemic-related issues outside of school (housing and food insecurity, parental job loss) that will impact their ability to perform in class. Sending children back to school will not fully address the host of mental health problems they may face because our schools are unable to meet their needs.

Additionally, the idea that most students benefiting from returning in person neglects the experiences of all students. The CDC released data showing that 75 percent of children who die from COVID-19 are children of color. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have suffered the most from the pandemic. Compared to white people, Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized, and Hispanic people are 4.1 times more likely. BIPOC communities also account for more than half of essential workers and have a much higher rate of death in their communities. The pandemic has certainly taken an emotional toll on BIPOC communities, and will absolutely have a profound impact on BIPOC students. Decisions that are made in the best interest of the “majority” of students do not represent the majority of those who are impacted.

Teachers have dedicated their lives to educating future generations. They’ve worked tirelessly. 

We understand that some of these issues that have been highlighted are out of your control. However, these are all things that should be considered when making decisions about things that are in your control. As the people responsible for enacting the state’s budget, you have the power to allocate funding to solve these problems and change the course of public education in this state. All we ask is that the concerns for the safety of teachers, their students, and their families are taken into serious consideration. Teachers deserve better. Students deserve better. North Carolinians deserve better. We implore you to do just that: better.

To see a list of the letter’s signatories, click here