Jennifer Watson Roberts is a former Charlotte mayor and former member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Read more of her opinion articles here.

Sometimes it feels like America is operating in parallel universes.

On the one hand, the stock market is surging, and every week I read about companies that are expanding, investing and opening in counties across our state. If you look around Charlotte, you see cranes and construction everywhere. People continue to move here, looking for opportunity and driving up the cost — and the growing scarcity — of housing.

On the other hand, our school system opened last week with 6,000 fewer students than the year before. This is a staggering number.

Do we know where these students have gone? Are they all being homeschooled? Do they even have internet service at home or the parental supervision needed to keep up with their schoolwork?

And those who did make it to the first week of school found a system that is struggling to keep up even with the lower numbers – there were 127 teacher vacancies on the first day, and 87 bus drivers still to hire. Looking at the entire system, that amounts to less than one teacher per school, but does your student know what it is like to have rotating substitute teachers all year for English or math?

Adding to that, 420 teachers were absent on the first day. In the face of surging Covid cases and crowded hospital ICUs, parents, students and teachers are trying to navigate the confusing guidance on mask wearing and social quarantine. This will lead to further absences for teachers and students, and well-founded worries about another lost year for many learners.

The eviction moratorium has come to a close, and many are scrambling to find affordable places to live – or risk becoming homeless.  Those who are experiencing homelessness are having to be outside in the heat, humidity and summer storms, which are increasingly violent due to a globally warming climate.

Multiple schools, as well as some homes in vulnerable neighborhoods, have air-conditioning systems that don’t work properly. And Charlotte has received some of the heavy, smoke-filled skies that have plagued the American West all summer due to another record-breaking wildfire season. If you have a chronic illness like asthma or diabetes, poor air quality is a big concern and another reason you might have to stay home from work or school.

If we look down the road a few years, these lost school years will amount to an even bigger crisis in our workforce. We are already seeing jobs go unfilled for lack of available talent, especially in technology and other highly skilled areas like medicine.

This lack of skilled workers will only grow if we do not see our public schools’ predicament as a crisis. Research shows that children learn less when it is too hot. We know that a changing climate is adding to concerns about environmental justice, with many low-income households suffering more from poor air quality, hotter summers and more violent storms. And yet, this is where the growth in our population is happening – in minority neighborhoods, with recent census figures showing how much more diverse the United States has become.

 Mecklenburg County is a majority-minority county. We need to double down on our efforts to both mitigate climate impacts and ensure our education system is meeting the needs of all our future workers. And yet our state legislature is talking about tax cuts instead of expanding healthcare and providing adequate funding for our school system.

We need to hear more noise from those who do not have children in the K-12 school system. We need to hear more support from business leaders, planners, faith leaders, healthcare workers, and elected officials for a public school system that is in crisis. We need to flood the in-boxes of all elected officials about the need to build an inclusive and equitable future by fully funding our school system, training and treating teachers as professionals, and expanding healthcare access so teachers and students can be healthy enough to keep up with lessons.

It should be all hands on deck. Otherwise, the growing storm will surely sink the ship.

Jennifer Watson Roberts was elected mayor of Charlotte in 2015 and served one term. She had perviously served as chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

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