With the state breaking records for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, parents are worried about sending children into classrooms to take required state exams.
High school students began returning to school buildings this week for state End of Course (EOCs) exams and career and technical education assessment exams.
The state is requiring students to report to campuses to take those exams in person, even if they’ve chosen to take online classes.
But some parents are pushing back against sending children to school to take tests amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 5,700 lives in North Carolina.
Not taking tests could be costly for students. The exams account for 20% of their final grade. Missing the exam could be the difference between passing or failing a course. It could also lower grade-point-averages and cause students to miss out on scholarship awards or getting into top universities.
“We have decided to not send our children back for face-to-face instruction and we certainly will not send them back for testing,” said Antonio Blow, a Greene County pastor and school administrator.
Blow made his remarks Wednesday during a webinar sponsored by NC Families for School Testing Reform (NCFaSTR) and other advocacy groups opposed to in-person testing during the pandemic.
Both of Blow’s children and his wife suffer from asthma, a condition that makes them more susceptible to the coronavirus.
That pre-existing condition is the reason the family choose virtual learning this school year, he said.
“I think it’s a major challenge to be required to have your child to return to an environment and not be guaranteed that their [health] won’t be compromised,” Blow said.
Other parents contend the data collected won’t be useful because the pandemic has negatively impacted student learning.
“I think that this data that we’re so hungry for isn’t going to tell us anything at the end of the day,” said Ilina Ewen, a Wake County parent with two sons in high school. “Any data from this pandemic year is going to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.”
Ewen said state education leaders have prioritized compliance with state and federal testing mandates over student health and safety.
“At this point, to administer these tests, we’re just pouring salt in the wounds of students,” she said. “They’re experiencing unimaginable stress and trauma, and it’s not only the children who are the usual suspects who are living in unsafe conditions, this is all of our kids.”
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has declined to waive federal testing requirements. She waive them last year due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education agreed last week to ask for a federal waiver to not hold school districts accountable if large numbers of students decide not to show up for exams. The state board will not, however, seek a waiver for testing because it believes the data will be useful in determining how students fared during the pandemic.
The board is also allowing districts to delay fall exams until June 30.
William Munn, a senior policy analyst with the Health Advocacy Project at the NC Justice Center, said it’s “insane” to force children to return to school buildings to take tests while the pandemic rages in North Carolina.
Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.
Munn noted that a study earlier this year found that children between the ages of 10-19 spread the virus as efficiently as adults.
“This is incredibly concerning as we are contemplating sending students back to classrooms to take a test,” Munn said.
Munn noted that millions of vulnerable senior citizens live in homes with school-age children who may spread the virus to older family members with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. The virus is more likely to cause severe sickness or death in older people.
In North Carolina, there are 88,000 seniors who live with 120,000 school-age children, Munn said. And older people of color are more likely to live with school-aged children compared to their white counterparts, he said.
Additionally, about 25,000 of the state’s teachers also have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk for complications due to the coronavirus, Munn said.
“We are in a very, very precarious situation as a state as it relates to community spread in coronavirus,” Munn said. “It’s definitely not the time to be taking chances with our children and I would urge caution.”
NCFaSTR has collected more than 7,100 signatures on a change.org petition asking state officials to waive EOC exams this school year.
Susan Book, a Wake County parent, urged parents to contact school districts and PTAs to advocate for a “broad” testing window to give advocates more time to organize.
Book also said parents should contact state board members.
“The state board is probably going to tell you that we’re done, we’ve decided, our hands are tied,” Book said. “Please don’t let them do that. They have the ability to do more.”
She said parents should demand the board waive the provision making exams count for 20% of a student’s final grade.
“We don’t need that,” Book said. “We don’t need that on our students. It’s not fair to them. Let’s ask them to get rid of it, and they can do that.”
There’s power in numbers, said NCFaSTR organizer Chelsea Bartel.
“There’s power when parents stand up and say this doesn’t make sense, this isn’t right, it’s putting our children at risk and our entire community at risk,” Bartel said.