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COLUMN: An alternative plan for reopening schools

COLUMN: An alternative plan for reopening schools

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When it comes to reopening public schools, there are four things on which most agree. First, we acknowledge the need for children to be back in school. Second, we accept that the safety of our children, teachers and staff is paramount. Third, we agree on the value of in-class instruction but recognize — at least most of us do — that we cannot return to the way things were before March. Finally, few are satisfied with the plans advanced to date.

We need better solutions, so I consulted with the person who has spent more time studying and forming conclusions on our public schools than perhaps anyone else in our state: Former Superior Court Judge Howdy Manning. When our state Supreme Court ruled in the Leandro lawsuit that North Carolina wasn’t providing our children with the “sound basic education” guaranteed by our Constitution, then-Chief Justice Burley Mitchell turned the case over to Manning to enforce. Judge Manning traveled all over the state, visited big schools and small, inspected facilities and talked with teachers, parents and students. He poured over detailed reports, test scores and consulted with other states. Howdy Manning isn’t afraid of making hard decisions and has the scars to prove it.

I called the colorful jurist and he didn’t disappoint. Manning told me that we weren’t prepared for online instruction and didn’t do it well when forced into it, adding that too many children essentially wasted the last three months of the last school year. He emphasized we can’t afford to lose another year and still isn’t convinced we are prepared to deliver online learning well.

When I asked how to begin, Manning said, “Let’s start with the ‘little children.’ They are the ones we are losing, because we aren’t teaching them to read and do basic math. If they don’t get it by third grade, they won’t ever catch up; our primary effort needs to be pre-k to grade three.”

Here’s an alternative. Let’s insist that pre-k through third-grade children be in the classroom come the start of the school year. They will benefit most from the individual attention, their progress can be observed daily, plus they are less likely to catch the coronavirus or spread it. If at all possible, middle schoolers should also be in class. To ensure 6 feet of social distancing, we are going to need many more classrooms. Let’s spread them out into our high school classrooms. Upper-grade students are better prepared to adapt to remote instruction and don’t require as much child care.

We already have a teacher shortage, and this plan obviously would require even more. Perhaps some current teachers can be repurposed to teach lower grades. Current teachers who fall into high-risk categories for the virus or don’t feel safe returning to class should not be blamed or shamed for not returning.

Judge Manning spoke to the teacher shortage and also how to teach those students not in class, acknowledging many don’t have tablets or high-speed internet access. “We have this wonderful statewide public television network in North Carolina,” he said, “so let’s identify master teachers in various subjects and put them in front of our students each day on our public TV network.”

Almost 98 percent of all homes in North Carolina can receive public television; it was originally called “educational TV.” I remember learning ninth-grade physical science from WUNC. Then, as now, it is one of our state’s great resources.

Maybe there are other, equally innovative out-of-the box ideas that will work. Now is the time to hear them.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of "N.C. SPIN," a weekly, statewide television discussion of N.C. issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 12:30 p.m. and UNC North Carolina Channel on Fridays at 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Contact him at

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