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.”