Student access to high-speed internet is top issue for Public School Forum of North Carolina

Ensuring that students have access to high-speed internet topped the Public School Forum’s list of Top Ten Education Issues for 2021.

Access to broadband became critical for students and school districts last spring when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered schools closed for in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without high-speed internet, many students were unable to connect to remote learning. Students in the rural parts of the state found connecting to classrooms especially difficult.

According to the public schools advocacy group, 192,000 of the state’s 1.5 million students lived in homes without access to high-speed internet.

It also reported that more than 30 percent of state households cannot afford broadband, lack needed infrastructure or the digital literacy skills to effectively access and use high speed internet.

“Not surprisingly, COVID-19 and the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic are top of mind as we gather here today,” Mary Ann Wolf, the Forum’s executive director. “We’re reminded in a very profound way how COVID-19 has impacted students, educators and community.”

Mary Ann Wolf

The Forum held its Seventh Annual Eggs and Issues event on Zoom due to concerns about the coronavirus.

State Sen. Kevin Corbin, a Republican from Macon, said state lawmakers have discussed allocating an additional $30 million in Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) grants to expand broadband.

“I think we need to do everything we can do to move past where we are; first recognizing the difficulty that we’ve had and then move as quickly as we can to get past it and get back to some kind of normal life for our students, teachers and parents,” Corbin said.

GREAT Program funds are used by private broadband providers to facilitate the deployment of broadband service to unserved areas. The program is administered by the N.C. Department of Information Technology Broadband Infrastructure Office.

Corbin said lawmakers also discussed providing additional money for testing and vaccinations. State educators have lobbied for more testing, and for teachers to move up in the vaccination pecking order.

Scott Elliot, superintendent of Watauga County Schools and event panelist, said the state must continue to focus on returning to in-person instruction full time when it’s safe to do so.

“That means, right now, we need to prioritize vaccinations for our staff as soon as possible in order for them to have the additional protection that they need and that the deserve to come to work safely,” Elliot said.

Catherine Edmonds, who will become deputy state superintendent for the Office of Equity Affairs on Monday, said the pandemic has forced the nation to rethink how it views normal.

“We hear a lot of that, people say, we want to go back to what was normal,” Edmonds said. “What we have to remember is that normal was not good for all students in our state.”

Edmonds is stepping down from her post as superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools to join the new administration of State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

Other top Forum issues include:

  • Teacher recruitment, retention and diversity.
  • Social and emotional learning.
  • Inclusive, culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy.
  • Flexibility for local school districts.
  • Assessment and accountability.
  • Afterschool programs and expanded learning.
  • Early childhood education and literacy.
  • Post-secondary attainment.
  • Adequate and equitable state funding to support public education.

As a result of the pandemic, Wolf said some top issues such as broadband have become more prevalent while others such as teacher and principal recruitment, retention and diversity are long standing issues that align with the WestEd report, which found that the state does not provide the resources required to meet its constitutional obligation to provide children a sound basic education.

The report stems from the 1997 landmark Leandro decision, in which the state Supreme Court held that the North Carolina constitution guarantees a right to a “sound basic education.”

Plaintiffs in the case argued that low-wealth counties, despite being heavily taxed, could not generate enough tax revenue to fund their school districts as wealthier districts.

Wolf said ensuring children have what they need to succeed will continue to be at the center of the Forum’s work.

“Achieving equitable access to hiqh-quality education for all requires that every child has what they need to be successful, and that oppressive systems are dismantled, and structural inequities are addressed,” Wolf said. “We can begin this process by working toward the goal of ensuring that all children have access to a sound basic education as defined in the Leandro case and is guaranteed by our state constitution.”

A teacher’s perspective 

The school year has been marked by disappointments, said Daniel Scott, a high school band director in Onslow County and Forum panelist. Students who looked forward to extracurricular activities such as band have been especially impacted, he said.

Daniel Scott

“What is the percentage [of infections] that we’re trying to get to, to open up our extracurricular activities?” Scott asked. “Right now, they’re just saying, ‘Not yet, not right now.’

He said the pandemic has taken a toll on both students and teachers.

“All over my timeline on social media are students and educators who are feeling lost, who are feeling completely dejected and have no understanding of what’s coming next,” Scott said.

He described the phenomenon as anticipatory grief — grief that comes before impending loss.

“My students, myself, my colleagues are feeling that anticipatory grief of, we can look forward to these things, however, they’ll probably just get canceled either way,” Scott said.

That, he said, has left students and teachers without a sense of purpose.

“Right now, none of students or our colleagues have a complete purpose of what we’re looking for and accomplishing in North Carolina by the end of the school year,” Scott said.

Scott said more transparency would help.

“I think what could really help us is transparency of how vaccines are going to be administered to our teachers and family members,” he said.

More transparency about how education dollars are going to be allocated next year and summer plans for students and teachers would also help to restore purpose, Scott said.

Panelists discuss education 

State Rep. Ricky Hurtado, (D-Alamance), said the General Assembly must act with a “sense of urgency” to address multiple crisis.

Ricky Hurtado

“We’re at a crossroads of multiple crisis; a public health crisis that we’re still navigating in this global health pandemic, a racial justice crisis that has elevated the consciousness of the nation as well as a constitutional crisis in North Carolina where we have learned that we have not been meeting our constitutional duty as a state to meet the sound basic educational needs of every child in North Carolina,” Hurtado said.

He contends the crises are interconnected.

“There is not a coincidence that those who continue to see the worst educational, health or economic outcomes all tend to be in the same groups whether we’re talking about historically marginalized groups or low-income working families,” Hurtado said.

He added: “I think this is a call to action for all of us to make sure that we are taking every step we can in 2021 to work toward recovery and progress.”

Panelist Anthony Graham, the Winston Salem State University provost who chairs Gov. Roy Cooper’s Developing a Representative Inclusive Vision for Education (Drive) Task Force, decried school resegregation.

Nationally, between 1996 and now, Graham said the number of segregated schools have doubled.

“What we’re seeing is, what we call in educational research, double segregation where low-income students and students of color are consistently concentrated in substandard schools and then those schools are systematically and significantly under resourced and underfunded,” Graham said.

There’s more, he said.

“So, we segregate them racially, then we hit them with the double whammy by segregating them economically, then we add injury to insult by using a grading system where we affix a scarlet letter to an underfunded, under resourced school and then publicly shame them for their underperformance when, in fact, we haven’t been bold or courageous enough to give them the support that they need.”

Graham is referring to the state’s controversial A-F School Performance Grade that assigns letter grades to schools based on student achievement. Eighty percent of the grade is based on the results of state tests and 20% on school growth.

The Forum wants the grading system suspended this year due to the pandemic, said Lauren Fox, the Forum’s director of policy.

“As we’ve said before, the Forum would like to see A-F grades eliminated all together in favor of an accountability system that features, multiple, more meaningful and less punitive measures,” Fox said. “At a minimum, we’d like to see the current formula changed so that student growth and proficiency are rated equally at 50% each.”

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Student access to high-speed internet is top issue for Public School Forum of North Carolina