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Back to school with a new budget, but fewer teachers: 2021 in North Carolina education

teacher in a blur with classroom
Bart Everson
Flickr/Creative Commons

In 2021, WUNC's reporters covered stories like the release of a COVID-19 vaccine, the emergence of two variants, and the end of the nation's longest war, just to name a few.

As the year comes to an end, WUNC's reporters are reviewing some of the biggest stories from their beats in 2021. WUNC education reporter Liz Schlemmer looks back at the year in North Carolina's classrooms:

On K-12 students going back to school in person:

"2020 and 2021 blur together so much that I actually had to go back and realize, oh, yeah, that was just this past year that students were returning to school... So, for students across the state who might have been returning to in-person school for the first time, they hadn't been in a traditional school setting for about two years, so they lost critical time for socialization and just class time... Meanwhile, K-12 schools have had significant vacancies, especially in high-need areas like math and special education, for support staff like bus drivers and cafeteria workers. And that's resulted in a lot of localized "sick-outs" — educators calling for more pay."

On how a national racial reckoning is playing out in North Carolina schools:

"We've seen some new initiatives like renaming buildings on university campuses for underrepresented people... There was a new national fight over Critical Race Theory in schools, and in North Carolina especially over the new social studies curriculum in K-12. Schools. The heart of this is just how schools are teaching kids about race and racism in U.S. history. The General Assembly did pass the so-called anti-Critical Race Theory bill that the Governor vetoed, but it was certainly a big talking point for a while. And in higher education, one of the biggest local stories this year was UNC-Chapel Hill's handling of the intended hire of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and her tenure fight, and the local response from students and faculty who felt that her not having a typical tenure process was indicative of systemic racism in higher education and at UNC. She ultimately was given tenure, but it was delayed, and she decided to go to Howard University — an HBCU — instead."

On the North Carolina legislature passing the first state budget in more than three years:

"Some of the education officials and advocates told me they were relieved. I mean, certainly many people were not sure if a budget was ever going to pass... This funding was really crucial. K-12 and higher education is a huge chunk of our state budget. These areas haven't had any new non-recurring funding in all that time, so they're not able to start up new big projects or there's no room to grow anything. So this budget includes funding for all state employees to get raises, including those in education and the universities. There's a lot of federal COVID relief funding and there's some funding for big, new initiatives. So we're going to be reporting on everything in the budget and how it plays out in the real world on the ground throughout the next year. The budget has been kind of a turning point of okay, we've been waiting for it for so long, now we get to see what it's really going to mean for people."

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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