Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645
Education

Educators expect dip in graduation and promotion rates amid ‘disastrous’ school year

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ‘disastrous’ for public education and will leave large learning gaps that will take years to close, North Carolina lawmakers and education leaders agreed Tuesday.

They expressed those sentiments during a Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee meeting held to discuss how students and educators have fared during the pandemic, which State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis described as the state’s biggest challenge since the Great Depression.

“We made great systemic changes to our public education in response to that challenge,” Davis said. “It’s going to require the same type of aggressive, statewide, coordinated strategies and new ways of thinking about the delivery of education, the preparation for our teachers, the training for our principal and superintendent leaders.”

The pandemic has left a mark.

There are 51,565 fewer students enrolled in the state’s traditional public schools this year according to second month enrollment data and attendance is down 0.39%. Enrollment has dipped from 1.53 million a year ago to 1.48 million this school year.

Educators expect the state’s graduation rate to also dip, along with promotion rates. And there are 15,000 fewer students in kindergarten classes because some parents elected to spare young children, and themselves, the stress and trauma sometimes associated with online learning. Meanwhile, others have opted to homeschool young children or send them to private schools, many of which have offered in-person instruction since August.

Many districts are reporting that students find online learning difficult and are failing classes at an alarming rate.

“I don’t know any other word, we’ve got a disaster on our hands,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the oversight committee.

There will be a hefty price to pay if a plan isn’t in place to address educational problems brought on by the pandemic, said State Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Democrat from Greensboro.

“All of those are going to be huge gaping holes in our system moving forward,” Wheeler Clemmons said

She asked if the SBE and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) have a plan to begin to repair the damage.

“There needs to be a group of people who are forward thinking about those major challenges,” Wheeler Clemmons said. “It’s hard because we have these immediate things right in front of us, but those challenges will prohibit the growth of our state for years if we do not have a plan now to address those challenges.”

David Stegall, deputy superintendent of innovation at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), predicts more students will be held back than the state has “seen in maybe 100 years.”

“Some parents have already asked that their child be retained for the very reason they think they’re not getting the content at a level they’re comfortable with,” Stegall said. “We’ve had in some districts parents are already asking that this be a repeat year next year.”

Stegall told the panel that 89% of students regularly attend in-person classes and 81% regularly attend online classes.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, worries that children of color and those from economically disadvantaged homes are now attending school less often because of the pandemic.

“I’d like to have some disaggregation on that data because my assumption is going to be, unless you show me otherwise, that these are students who go to low-performing schools; these are children of color and [receive] free and reduced lunches,” Robinson said.

She said the pandemic has exposed how continuing racial and income disparities serve to widen the achievement gap.

“What are plans to address this,” Robinson said. “We can’t wait.”

Davis reminded lawmakers that school districts and teachers were already under a lot of pressure before the pandemic.

“What COVID has done to our school system is not unlike what COVID has done to our economy and nearly every aspect of the lives of North Carolinians,” Davis said. “It has landed unevenly across our students and schools and has been most detrimental to those students who faced the greatest challenges before the pandemic but it has also affected those students who were doing well before the pandemic.”

Sen. Rick Horner, a Nash County Republican, said this has been a “wasted year.”

“It’s been a good effort,” Horner said. “I think the only thing that can come of it would possibly be a way to waive snow days sometime from remote learning.”

Education

Durham private schools where 26 students, teachers tested positive for the coronavirus reopened this week

For nine consecutive weeks, Liberty Christian School, a private school in Durham, held in-person classes without a single teacher, student or staffer contracting the coronavirus.

But two weeks ago, 20 students and six teachers tested positive, tagging Liberty Christian with the dubious distinction of having had one of the state’s largest school coronavirus clusters. Wayne Christian School in Goldsboro had the largest cluster with 35 reported cases.

Liberty Christian closed. The K-12 school of 253 students and approximately 40 teachers switched to online classes. School officials worked with the Durham County Health Department to ensure the school was cleaned and that safety precautions are in place.

Principal Kyle Ketner has been unable to pinpoint the source of the virus.

Kyle Ketner

“Honestly, I’m not able to trace that back to the exact event or what took place or what transpired,” Ketner said. “I can’t comment, concretely on that.”

Liberty Christian reopened Monday after school leaders consulted with the health department officials. The school is associated with Liberty Baptist Church.

“We opened on August 19th for in-person instruction and we went nine weeks without any positive cases, and that was a great feat,”  Ketner said. “And then, when it hit, it obviously is going to spread, but then we can’t control what happens outside. There’s a lot of factors that weigh in.”

Despite the outbreak, Ketner said the school hasn’t lost any students to other schools.

“We’re so thankful that we have great kids, great families and we’re trying to keep things as safe as possible, and we’re so thankful right now we don’t have any positive cases that we’re aware of; and the ones [students] that are quarantining are participating in online learning until they clear health department guidelines on their quarantines,” Ketner said.

Ketner knows of no hospitalizations as a result of the outbreak. Some students and teachers experienced mild symptoms, he said, while symptoms in others were more severe.

Ketner said students and staff at Liberty Christian wore masks, social distanced and washed their hands frequently and will continue to do so.

“We’ve taken those [health guidelines seriously] and have done that to the very best of our ability,” Ketner said

The outbreak at Liberty Christian shows how quickly the virus spreads and how schools can suddenly be forced to close.

A Raleigh News & Observer analysis last month showed that private schools have more COVID-19 clusters than public schools and have generally had more confirmed cases in those clusters. Private schools aren’t bound by the same health rules as public schools.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services lists 522 coronavirus cases associated with 36 clusters on its Covid-19 North Carolina dashboard.

Public schools teachers across North Carolina have begun to express concern about returning to schools for in-person instruction as more school boards adopt plans to reopen buildings.

Education, News

Testing reform group condemns in-person testing mandate for high school students

In-person end-of-course testing mandated by state and federal law will place students and families at risk of contracting the coronavirus, a North Carolina testing reform group warns.

NC Families for School Testing Reform (NCFSTR)  started a petition on Change.org asking that high school End-of Course  (EOCs) exams in Math 1, Math 3, English 2, and Biology and Career and Technical Education assessments be waived for the fall 2020 semester.

The petition directs the request to North Carolina lawmakers, including Gov. Roy Cooper, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and State Superintendent Mark Johnson. It had nearly 1,000 signatures early Thursday.

The group also requests that the state ask the U.S. Department of Education to waive in-person testing requirements associated with EOC exams and other federally mandated, standardized tests.

“Bringing children back into buildings as COVID-19 cases continue to rise demonstrates a violation of public schools’ obligation to protect and act in the best interest of children,” the group said in the petition.

NCFSTR wants the state to also waive the provision that EOC exams account for 20% of a student’s grade if a full waiver isn’t granted.

“This year, our high school students have worked under challenging circumstances and without equitable access to resources,” the petition says. “Students and families require flexibility as we continue to grapple with the realities of this public health crisis.”

The group said that forcing students to take in-person exams is unnecessary and will prove traumatic for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or have siblings or other household members at high risk of becoming sick or dying if they contract the disease.

“Now imagine being faced with the impossible choice to either fail your classes by choosing safety or go into an environment that puts you or your family at risk,” the group said. “Forcing students to choose between failing a high school class and entering a high-risk situation is a trauma that we can choose not to inflict.”

Educators are sharing the petition on social media.

“Teaching looks different. Learning looks different. And many of our kids are just trying to survive. Yet our government still expects our students to take (and either grow or be proficient) our state exams,” Tiffany Kilgore, president of the Wayne County Association of Educators wrote in a Facebook post.

The tests are biased and are used to reinforce the narrative that public schools are failing children, Kilgore added.

“Testing now when our families and communities are struggling is against everything we know as sound practice,” Kilgore said.

The petition comes as the state experiences significant upticks in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

Kevin Taylor, a Stanly County parent and college professor, says the tests aren’t worth risking the health of a child or family member.

“It makes you feel like our government is trying to kill us,” Taylor said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t mean to be too graphic but it’s hard to imagine that any test is worth families and grandparents potentially getting the disease.”

Families can refuse testing but students would be penalized because they  account for 20% of their semester grade.

Chelsea Bartel, an NCFST organizer, said it’s critical that lawmakers come up with a solutions before testing begins early next month.

“For us, it’s not just black and white,” Bartel said. “We’re looking for any creative problem solving, something for all the families, especially those who elected fully virtual and are now going to be asked to send their kids anyway.”

At the same time educators are discussing the wisdom of bringing high school students back to school buildings for testing, some school districts are making plans for students to return to classrooms for in-person instruction.

Elementary school students in many districts have already returned to classrooms for some in-person instruction.

The Wake County Board of Education approved a plan this week that brings back older students for some in-person instruction for the spring semester. Wake County’s elementary schools returned to daily in-person classes on Monday.

In Durham, the school board will consider a plan today to bring back some younger students for in-person classes in January. Some older students would return to school buildings in February under the plan.

The testing reform group said that requiring older students to return to school buildings for tests contradicts the advice of state health officials who shared that adolescents contract and spread the coronavirus at the same rate as adults.

State health officials reported earlier this month that school re-openings for in-person instruction aren’t big drivers of spikes in coronavirus cases.

In an interview this week with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, urged school system leaders to “try as best as possible” to keep schools open.

“But you’ve got to have not one size fits all,” Fauci said. “You’ve got to take a look at what’s going on in the particular location where you’re at, but we should be trying to keep the children in schools as safely as we can. [That means] getting resources to the schools to allow them to do things while keeping it open, maybe in a hybrid fashion; maybe in doing some physical separation; maybe alternating classes in certain ways. I don’t want to dictate that from here to the schools because I’m not there but do what you can to keep the children and teachers safe but try as best as possible to keep the schools open.”

Education

North Carolina should add at least one ‘minority-serving’ university to its Teaching Fellows Program

Add at least one “minority-serving” college or university to the NC Teaching Fellows Program to increase diversity in the North Carolina’s teacher workforce, the state’s Program Evaluation Division (PED) recommended this week.

There’s currently no such school among the five that offer the merit-based, loan forgiveness program. It provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.

The term “minority-serving” is used in this instance instead of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to incorporate Pembroke University, which has traditionally served Native Americans.

“Despite achieving slight improvements in the diversity of its teacher workforce during the last few years, a sizable gap remains between the share of teachers of color in North Carolina and the share of students of color,” the PED report states. “A gap exists in every LEA in the state and in every other state in the country.”

More than 80% of the state’s teachers are white, while 52% of students are minorities.

The importance of diversity in the teaching profession has been widely debated in education circles. Some studies show that Black students are more likely to graduate high school and attend college if they have just one Black teacher in elementary school.

North Carolina should also develop an alternative to licensure exams to allow teacher candidates to demonstrate competency, recommended the non-partisan unit that evaluates whether public services are delivered in an effective and efficient manner and in accordance with state law.

Black and Latinx students are often tripped up by the standardized tests they must pass to earn a teaching license.

A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that such tests screen out 8,600 of 16,900 teachers of color each year.

The PED is a unit of the Legislative Services Commission of the General Assembly. The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee (JLPEOC) oversees formal evaluation of state agency programs by PED.

JLPEOC asked the evaluation division to examine the effectiveness of current efforts to increase teacher diversity.

The PED found that North Carolina doesn’t have a dedicated effort to produce, recruit and retain teachers of color, which has led to “wide variation in district-by-district diversity” and that local supplements and geographical factors often play a role in determining if students will be taught by a teacher of color.

“Disparities in resources result in some LEAs and charter schools being able to fund efforts to increase the proportion of teachers of color in their classrooms, whereas other LEAs and charter schools are less capable of doing so,” the report says.

The PED also found that local districts, charter schools and state educator preparation program have resorted to their own efforts to increase teacher diversity and that the effectiveness of those efforts are not certain.

Other states have options for recruiting and retaining teachers of color that North Carolina could emulate, the report said.

The JLPEOC will vote on a bill draft next month that directs the State Board of Education to develop an alternative plan and consider alternative qualifications for teachers to receive a continuing professional license. It also directs the Teaching Fellows Commission to select at least one minority-serving institution to participate in the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program.

Education

Parents were anxious and stressed in the early days of the pandemic, a Campbell University professor found

Miranda van Tilburg

A study by a Campbell University professor conducted soon after schools closed for in-person instruction found parents stressed out and reporting higher levels of anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was led by Miranda van Tilburg, a professor of clinical research at the university.  It was conducted April 10-17, nearly a month after schools closed for in-person instruction.

The researchers contend the findings provide data to make the argument for increased mental health care.

“People might wonder, ‘We know we’re more stressed. Why are you telling me this?’ but in science, we always have to show the numbers,” van Tilburg says. “And I think it also validates a lot of parents and tells them they’re not alone. It’s normal to feel this way during this pandemic. A lot of people are struggling.”

Thirty-nine percent of parents reported that dealing with children was more stressful than before pandemic restrictions. More than one-third of parents worried about the future of their jobs “a lot” or “a great deal,” and 30% of parents found their jobs to be more stressful, the study found.

Nearly half of the parents reported mild to moderate levels of anxiety (44.6%) and depression (42.2%) during that time. The stress, anxiety and depression levels were higher in parents of children with chronic conditions.

“In our study, we looked at the main stressors due to COVID-19. A lot of them were work-related — people were losing their jobs or having their pay reduced. And even if they weren’t affected yet, they were worried about the future of their jobs. Another stressor for parents was online schooling and children being at home without access to their usual social support system. Daycares were closed, schools were closed, playdates were not happening.”

The effect of pandemic-related stress on children was not reported in the study. Van Tilburg — whose past research has focused primarily on pediatrics — says higher stress, anxiety and depression levels in parents can have a negative impact on their children.

“We’ve found that when parents are dealing with something traumatic, how smaller children respond to these events depends on how their parents respond,” she says. “Some children will breeze through traumatic experiences, because their parents are helping them see it in a different light — helping them cope and showing that that, yes, this is hard, but we can deal with this.”

Van Tilburg called the country’s mental health system “underfunded” with a lack of quality providers.

“Knowing we will have this tsunami of kids and parents coming for mental health care between now and the next couple of years, we are going to overtax the system and not really be able to help everyone,” she says. “It’s sad, but it is a reality that we need to prepare for.”