RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Both candidates in this year’s race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction raised concerns about the back-to-school plan announced by Gov. Roy Cooper (D) this week, telling CBS 17 about steps they would like to see implemented.
Jen Mangrum (D) and Catherine Truitt (R) both have more than a decade of experience teaching in classrooms.
This week, Cooper announced schools can open for in-person instruction with social distancing measures in place, health screenings and face masks worn by all students and staff. Of the three plans districts had to prepare for, this is known as Plan B.
Plan A called for less restrictive measures, but schools cannot operate under that plan following the governor’s announcement. School district leaders do have the option of choosing all remote learning, which is Plan C.
“What I remember about being in the classroom for ten years is that it often felt like things were being done to me as a teacher. We’ve got to include teacher voice, parent voice in all the decisions that we make,” said Truitt, who also served as senior education adviser to former Gov. Pat McCrory (R).
Truitt said she would prefer school districts have control over which plan they can choose, citing lower numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in some counties, especially in the western part of the state.
“What I have been advocating for from the day I launched my campaign is local control,” said Truitt. “When you advocate for local control, you have to be prepared to accept the decision that those folks make. And so, I’m not a huge fan, for my family personally, what Wake County has decided to do does not work well for my family.”
WCPSS leaders have announced a plan to have students on a rotation where they’re in class one week and learn remotely for two weeks.
Truitt said her first preference would be to have in-person instruction five days a week. She said accommodations should be made for anyone who is high-risk for COVID-19.
“Everyone is going back to work, and I don’t think it should be any different for teachers. And, quite frankly, what I’m hearing from teachers is they want to be back with their kids,” said Truitt.
Mangrum, who taught in elementary schools before becoming an associate professor at UNC-Greensboro, said she’s concerned about whether school districts will have the resources they need to open safely.
“We need to get students back in school, but I do have concerns,” she said. “The biggest concern is we’re not clear about what metrics have to be in place to be able to be back in school.”
Mangrum called on the General Assembly to reconvene and provide additional funding for PPE and rural broadband access.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money to do it right,” she said. “It’s not about getting kids back in school. It’s about getting them to stay back in school. And, so those are concerns that I have. If we do too much too soon, it’s going to backlash on us.”
Mangrum recalled buying supplies for her classroom and said she worries some teachers won’t have what they need this year.
“I remember my husband used to say, ‘Can’t you expense that?’ when I would buy things for the classroom because I don’t think the average person realizes how much we do spend, particularly when we know it’s necessary,” she said.
On why they’re running
Mangrum previously ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2018 against Senate leader Phil Berger (R), saying she wanted to have more input on the budget and how it impacts education.
In talking about why she decided to run for superintendent, she said both her parents were teachers and recalled the morning her mother passed away following a heart attack. Mangrum was 14 at the time.
“I didn’t know what to do, and I literally walked to school within 30 minutes of knowing my mom had passed away. And I did that because I knew my school was going to be a safe place,” she said. “I know what it’s like to really need your school for support, for safety but also for compassion and love and humanity.”
She added, “Now I want to help schools be that again. I think we’ve lost our way.”
Truitt raised concerns about the achievement gap among students in North Carolina. Truitt has worked as a turnaround coach with under-performing school districts.
“Education in this country is still the surest pathway to opportunity and prosperity, and I want all students in North Carolina to have that opportunity,” she said. “Heading into high school, we already have the majority of students in our state with these deficits. And, this has got to change.”
Current superintendent Mark Johnson (R) did not run for re-election. Instead, he ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor.
Council of State authority
The superintendent is one of 10 statewide elected positions on the Council of State.
Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) who is running against Cooper this year, filed a lawsuit against him saying he should have sought concurrence from the council before implementing restrictions in response to COVID-19.
“I do see the role of the Council of State as advising (the governor). And so, I do think with these things someone has to take the lead. That’s what leadership is, and so I do think it’s in his hands,” said Mangrum. “However, one of the strengths that I’m going to bring to the Council of State is that I’m not afraid, even with Governor Cooper, to say here’s what I want you to know. And, these are things that I don’t know you’ve considered.”
When asked about the role of the superintendent and other council members in making decisions about managing the COVID-19 pandemic, Truitt cited state statutes calling for concurrence for the council.
“The best way is to collaborate with respect, with listening first, seeking to understand before we speak, building consensus and moving forward,” she said.