Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more


UNC-TV provides educational programming to keep North Carolina children learning while schools are closed

North Carolina’s public school are closed due to the COVID-19 crisis but students can continue to learn by watching UNC-TV.

The state’s public television station has begun to air programming for students in grades 4-12  to complement remote learning opportunities provided by North Carolina schools.

The programs are designed for use by parents, caregivers and educators while schools are closed. The state’s public schools will remain closed until May 15, or longer.

Educational programming is available online, on air and through PBS LearningMedia for students in pre-kindergarten through high school .

N.C. Department of Public Instruction will link online and printable material and activity ideas that complement the UNC-TV lessons. Districts are encouraged to print the materials and the programming schedule to distribute at meal sites or mail to students.

“We’re excited about this additional learning resource for students and families during this challenging time across our state and nation,” said Angie Mullennix, director of innovation strategy and interim director of K-12 standards, curriculum and instruction for DPI. “We thank UNC-TV for working with us to help fill the gap left by the unfortunate, but necessary, school closures.”

UNC-TV’s educational programming block will be available over the air and streamed live at The programming is available Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., for grades 4-8 and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., for grades 9-12 (actual times may vary, please check the weekly schedule online at

Additional programming for children in grades pre-K through third grade is available on UNC-TV’s Rootle 24/7 PBS KIDS channel, as well as weekdays during a seven-hour block, from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on UNC-TV.


Guilford County Schools to give cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers temporary pay increases

In response the COVID-19 crisis, Guilford County Schools will increase hourly pay for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers beginning Wednesday.

Although North Carolina’s public schools have been closed since March 13, cafeteria workers and bus drivers across the state have played critical roles in the delivery of meals to needy students and their families.

The pay increase — time and a half for hours worked — applies to hourly employees who have been deemed mandatory by supervisors and are required to report to work either to provide childcare for hospital workers or to prepare and deliver student meals.

“Without our dedicated school nutrition and transportation staff who are preparing and distributing meals, Guilford County would be facing the potential of massive child hunger,” GCS Superintendent Sharon Contreras said in a statement. “Additionally, without the commitment of our after-school staff, teacher assistants and custodial support, some hospital workers would not have childcare and would be unable to report for duty.”

The pay increase is valid April 1-30, but may be extended, depending on the pandemic’s impact in Guilford County. The state’s schools will not reopen before May 18.

For the 2019-2020 school year, more than 65% of GCS students qualified for free- or reduced-price meals.

Last Tuesday, GCS served slightly fewer than 1,000 meals. Eight days later, that number jumped to more than 29,000 emergency meals per day. The district has provided more than 157,000 meals to children since Gov. Roy Cooper announced schools were closing, effective March 16.

Contreras plans to ask the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper to increase the pay of public-school employees providing essential services during the coronavirus pandemic.

She and the GCS school board will meet virtually Tuesday with members of the local NCGA delegation to discuss the pay increase.

“We respectfully ask the General Assembly to act swiftly to increase the pay of these critical hourly employees,” Contreras said. “In the meantime, however, GCS will take action immediately to prevent child hunger and the lack of childcare for frontline healthcare workers from making the pandemic even worse.”

GCS officials also announced plans to reduce the number of non-mandatory personnel working on-site this week to help slow the spread of the virus.

The State Board of Education adopted new rules Friday to allow non-mandatory employees and those who report for reduced hours, who are unable to work from home, to take paid State Emergency Leave for the balance of the hours they were not assigned on-site or remote duties.

COVID-19, Education, News

State Board of Education makes changes to graduation requirements for class of 2020

Students prepare to receive diplomas at a recent Durham Public Schools’ graduation.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s doubtful high school seniors will don caps and gowns for graduation ceremonies this spring.

But the State Board of Education (SBE) has made earning a diploma easier by adopting policy  adjustments Friday relaxing graduation requirements.

Under the adjustments, districts and school systems can’t require seniors to earn more than 22 credits to graduate. Some districts require more than the state’s 22-credit minimum to earn a diploma.

“We are focusing on the minimum 22 State Board of Education requirements,” said Sneha Shah Coltrane, the state’s director of advanced learning and gifted education. “If there is availability and the school is able to do that [provide more than the minimum] and the senior is able to do other requirements, wonderful. However, for graduation purposes, we want to ensure that we are focused on the 22 [minimum requirement] to leap these students forward to their incredible futures.”

Seniors won’t have to fret over grades, either, particularly if they did well in the fall. Those grades will count toward GPAs.

Grades for spring courses will be pass or withdraw if students were failing a course on March 13, the last day students attended North Carolina schools before they were closed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Districts must provide remote learning opportunities to help students failing a course earn a “pass” designation.

In addition to remote learning, students may also meet graduation requirements through the N.C. Virtual Public School, a credit recovery program or by passing a locally developed assessment based on course material covered through March 13.

Evaluating students in grades K-11

The board also issued guidance for grading students engaged in remote learning.

Teachers may only evaluate students in grades K-5 or assign grades to students in grades 6-11 if there is equitable access to technology, consistent communication between teachers and students and evidence that students are learning.

SBE member Olivia Oxendine asked for clarity about when teachers can assign grades based on remote learning activities in grades K-5.

“If a classroom teacher determines that one or two students are having extraordinary challenges taking part in online instruction … would that constitute the teacher’s decision not to assign grades?” Oxendine asked.

Coltrane responded: “Yes, for a simple answer. The idea that there is no permanent comparison done among the students when equity is not there.”

School funding flexibility 

The SBE approved a formula to divvy up $50 million in funding flexibility approved by Gov. Roy Cooper this week.

Under the formula, $25 million will be distributed to districts or schools based on enrollment. The other $25 million will be based a district’s or school’s low-wealth status or number of poor students enrolled.

The funding is intended to help districts serve students during the COVID-19 crisis. Money may be spent on school nutrition, school-and community-based childcare, cleaning and sanitizing schools and buses, protective equipment and remote learning opportunities.

The $50 million is comprised of unused funds from the current and previous school year and the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund.

Emergency leave policy  

The SBE also adopted an emergency leave policy to allow districts to continue to pay and provide benefits to workers who cannot work remotely, who cannot work due to childcare or eldercare needs.

The policy provides up to 168 hours of paid leave between April 1 through April 30.

Education, News

State Board of Education votes down 4-month Istation extension

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Despite a plea from State Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Friday rejected a $1.2 million contract extension with Istation, the firm that provides the state’s K-3 reading diagnostic tool.

The SBE voted 8-2 during a remote conference call to table the contract until the General Assembly considers a request to waive the reading diagnostic requirement in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

The crisis forced North Carolina’s schools to close until May 15 or longer.

A K-3 reading diagnostic tool is required under the state’s Read to Achieve law enacted to ensure students are reading on grade level by end of third grade. Without the Istation extension, the state will be without a diagnostic tool starting March 31.

Johnson said Istation has agreed to sweeten the deal by giving students and teachers its remote learning curriculum for free during school closure.

“So that means, with what we already have in place, at no additional cost, all of the reading, math and Spanish lessons and curriculum for teachers to assign to students and to personalize their learning will be made available,” Johnson said.

Johnson won over SBE members Amy White and Olivia Oxendine, both of whom voted in favor of extending the contract.

Oxendine said teachers understand Istation.

“They may not be thoroughly pleased but they were not thoroughly pleased with mClass [a competing diagnostic tool the state used before Istation],” Oxendine said. “Going back to my early days on the State Board I recall numerous debates about mClass and most of them were negative, not always positive.”

She said allowing the contract to expire leave teachers in the “lurch” and “twiddling their fingers, pulling out their hair” trying to figure out how to provide reliable and consistent standards-based instruction in K-3 reading.

“K-3 reading, as each board member knows, we have talked about it endlessly, is the foundation of literacy in the education of our kids,” Oxendine said. “

SBE member J.B. Buxton argued against the extension.

“Do we want to spend $1.2 million in the next four months … or even a $200,000 a month to provide a tool we may not be able to administer,” Buxton said. “We are asking to be waived and we don’t know that in the near-term students can even get access to [Istation] whether it’s on smartphone or [due to] connectivity issues or potentially by print.”

Johnson said he is confident the General Assembly will waive end-of-the-year tests required by the state.

“But we have no indication from the General Assembly that they want us to violate the legislation [Read to Achieve law] that requires the formative progress monitoring,” Johnson said.

Buxton questioned the reliability of data collected from students working on Istation from home.

“I don’t know that we could call what progress monitoring would capture valid and reliable because we have no way of understanding how it’s being used at home,” Buxton said.

Several board members and Johnson alluded to the rocky history Istation has had in North Carolina.

The diagnostic tool has been a big point of contention between the SBE and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Johnson selected Istation to provide the assessment tool in August. That triggered a protest from Amplify, a competitor whose mClass diagnostic tool had been used in North Carolina schools.

The matter is still being litigated.