Avoiding another failed school year

Published September 16, 2021

By Tom Campbell

There’s no sugarcoating it: More that 50 percent of North Carolina’s school children failed to achieve grade-level expectations last year.
Test scores released earlier this month revealed only 45 percent of children passed state exams, compared to 59 percent in 2019, the year before the pandemic. The passing rate for Asians was 74 percent, 59 percent for whites, 34 percent for Hispanics and 26 percent for Blacks.  A national study found that the average school-age student lost 55 instruction days, almost one-third of a school year, between March 2020 and the same month in 2021. Additionally some students only briefly checked in some days for virtual learning and the total lost days grows exponentially.
Can we all agree this isn’t acceptable?  This school year must be different. Here are some suggestions to make it successful:
1.         Conduct a complete census of school-aged children to make sure they are identified and in school. State law requires it. The NC Department of Public Instruction estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 public school students were unaccounted for last year.
 2.        Make a commitment that students will be in class the entire school year, regardless of conditions. Virtual learning was a failure. Creative solutions might be necessary, but this past year confirms we must keep our kids in class.
            Teachers, students and all personnel must feel “safe” in school facilities. This means constant sanitizing to guarantee cleanliness. School busses should be sanitized each morning and afternoon. Classrooms, hallways, gyms, cafeterias and other facilities will need modifying for distancing. Masks will likely be necessary for all but our youngest children.
             Recent studies indicate sports are the primary reason for COVID spread among the young. We might need to again eliminate team sports, guaranteed to be unpopular.
            School districts must have flexibility to hire additional teachers, nurses, mentors, counselors, administrators, custodians, food service and other personnel. More people will require more intensive supervision.
            Teachers must be given permission to “take a break” when they need to relieve stress and pressure, even if it is just a few minutes away from class. A burned-out, stressed-out teacher can’t be effective.
3.         Assess each student’s level of performance. Not only at the start of the year, but frequently throughout the year. Educators cannot get them back to grade level if they don’t accurately know student learning levels. Guarantee no negative consequences will be attributed to teachers or instructors in order to ensure accurate assessments.
            Students falling behind will require additional individual or group tutoring outside of class. Tutor groups must be kept small, say 2-4 students.
            Principals and administrative personnel must frequently monitor every classroom. There’s no substitute for watching.
4.         More counseling is imperative. The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics pooled studies from across the globe and found clinically elevated depression in 25 percent of children and adolescents and anxiety in 20 percent. That’s double the usual levels. Children don’t always know how to express their feelings, so asking open-ended questions like “I feel _______,” or “I need ______” can often get reluctant students to express fears and concerns.
5.         Every student must have a grade-appropriate electronic tablet, notebook or laptop, along with instruction for using it. 
6.         Schools must have frequent contact with parents to ensure students are getting adequate sleep, nutrition and recreation and to update parents of progress and problems with their child. 
7.         This is a turning point year, so we should extend this school year beyond the traditional 180 instruction days. There is much to be done and as you can see many more dollars and people will be necessary for our children to catch up, keep up and master grade-level instruction. Several states have extended the year by an additional 15 to 30 instruction days. We should start planning now for summer school next year.
8.         North Carolina must resolve to spend and use whatever means are necessary to achieve success. Our state has a $6 billion surplus and federal relief funds are readily available (for three years).
We’ve got the money. Do we have the resolve? Our Constitution guarantees access to a “sound basic education” for every child. This is no time to scrimp on funding, materials and personnel for our children’s future. Let’s stop partisan arguing and put our children first. We cannot afford another failed school year.