North Carolina's education dilemma

Published September 17, 2020

By Tom Campbell

North Carolina is facing an education crisis. The dilemma is easily understood, but not so easy to resolve: How to educate students in a pandemic?
We saw what happened when our universities attempted to bring students back to campus and class. Three of our largest state-supported universities immediately shut down almost as soon as they started, sending students home and converting to virtual learning. Other universities have not published detailed reports, but we know many are struggling with cluster outbreaks, mostly from off campus gatherings.
Universities are facing major revenue shortfalls. UNC Chapel Hill recently pegged their losses at $300 million, instituting furloughs and layoffs. Look for similar stories from other universities soon.
When public schools were forced to close in March, they were ill-prepared to deliver virtual learning. Many believe students lost about one-third of the school year. We won’t know the full extent of that loss until schools evaluate and report end-of-grade proficiency results. And we can’t know the role the virus played, but the Department of Public Instruction just reported that the average SAT score for the class of 2020 fell two points from the previous year. Teachers are struggling to make up last year’s learning deficits while also providing new instruction.
In July, Governor Cooper presented two options for the new school year: a modified in-class instruction delivery (Plan B) or virtual learning (Plan C). Some 60 percent of school systems opted for Plan C. There are problems. Superintendents report that some 100,000 of our 1.5 million students don’t have a reliable Internet connection at home. The legislature just appropriated $40 million to help, mostly through 100,000 high-speed Internet hot spots for students. That still won’t provide home service for all and might require several weeks to implement. Further, many students still don’t have the Chromebooks or tablets promised them.
Parents are saying they don’t believe online instruction is sufficient and many worry they may have to quit their jobs to stay home with children. The Wall Street Journal estimated the economic impact could raise the unemployment rate by as much as 2.5 percent. Many have opted to home-school children; others have decided private school tuition a better alternative than losing their jobs.
Parent complaints are growing louder each week. School boards in Wake, Buncombe, Davidson and other counties are hearing from disgruntled parents; some parents are even suing the Charlotte Mecklenburg system for children to return to the classroom. Most school systems are working overtime to get children safely back to class.
Many teachers say they are dedicated to teaching children but claim it isn’t worth the health risk to them or their families. The surge in teacher retirements across the country supports those claims. North Carolina already faces a teacher shortage and can ill afford a rash of retirements. 17 percent of our teachers are 55 and older and another 11.4 percent are in the 50-54 age range. Filling classrooms with qualified teachers is a major concern.
And we haven’t even considered the economic problems. School Systems are largely funded on a per-pupil basis. Decreased pupil counts mean fewer dollars for schools even as they incur increased costs for additional teachers, classroom spaces, transportation costs and needed nurses for pupil testing in each school. Those impacts are incalculable at this moment.
Here’s our spin: While COVID-19 is still a major concern, the virus appears to be declining. Dr. Tony Fauci says we won’t return to “normal life” until late next year. Now is the time to bring children in kindergarten through grades three back to class, using a modified plan with what DHHS calls “maximum safety protocols” that space desks six feet apart, requires masks and more frequent washing and hygiene. The early grades are the most critical for in-person instruction. After several weeks’ experience we can assess community spread and make decisions how to proceed.
This school crisis isn’t going away this school year. Unless we want to lose another school year, we need to safely return children to the classroom. The key word is safely.
Note: This column was written prior to the Governor’s announcement that grades k-5 can begin in-class instruction October 5th.