Vaccinations of teachers and declining COVID cases are making it possible for schools to resume in-person instruction, but getting back to more effective education will take more than having students reenter the classroom.
Months of virtual learning necessitated by the pandemic have created a learning deficit. Many of the state’s 1.5 million public school students have received no or sporadic in-person instruction since March of 2020. Now students will not only be coming back, they’ll need to readjust and catch up.
“It’s been a lost year of learning,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the state Senate Education Committee this week. She noted that the students who have lost the most were those who were already struggling before the pandemic.
The depth of the learning deficit was clear in statistics presented to the committee. Twenty-three percent of students attending district schools are at risk of academic failure. End-of-course tests for high school students taken in January showed the majority of students failed the Math 1, Math 3 and biology exams. There was a slight improvement in reading.
Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at the Department of Public Instruction, cautioned that the decline must be taken in context. The widespread and long-running suspension of in-person instruction was an unprecedented disruption and the real significance of the academic decline may be that remote instruction kept it from being worse.
Schools deserve credit for what they were able to do under difficult circumstances, but still there are serious consequences for the academic progress and the mental health of students cut off from their teachers and the social life of school. They experienced emotional strain and some endured stressful situations at home where their parents had lost jobs or were away at work.
Now all the effects of the long disruption are coming back to schools that already had staff shortages and building needs before the pandemic. The schools needed then – and now need more - teacher assistants to provide intensive small group instruction. School counselors, nurses and psychologists were in short supply before and are now more urgently needed to help prevent the temporary loss of time in school from having long-term effects on students.
“Now we’re back into the school buildings and all of the glaring things that were there before definitely need our attention now,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Republican state lawmakers have addressed part of the learning deficit with House Bill 82, which calls for school districts to offer six weeks of summer school instruction, especially for students in need of remedial education. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, a primary sponsor of the bill, said at a news conference, “We know these kids are falling behind. We know this is something that, if we don’t do it right, North Carolina will pay for it for decades.”
That’s a good start, but it would also be good to hear Republican proposals for boosting school support staff, improving computer and textbook supplies and renovating school buildings to improve ventilation, which reduces the risk of COVID infections.
Gov. Roy Cooper has long supported increasing school staff. He also wants to repair and modernize school buildings as part of an infrastructure bond. His press secretary Dory MacMillan, said, “Governor Cooper has urged all schools to return to in-person learning to help students catch up, but many of the challenges these students face existed before the pandemic. Our public schools need significant, long-term investments to support our most at-risk students.”
Kelly of the NCAE said North Carolina, despite the setbacks of the pandemic, is now in a position to not only reopen schools, but improve them.
“North Carolina has fared well. We have rainy day fund. The budget is in better shape,” she said. “Our budget reflects our priorities and if students are our priority, our budget should reflect that.”