Lawmakers slam state officials for COVID lockdowns that have left NC students behind

By Julie Havlak

Raleigh, NC – More students face repeating a grade than anytime in the past century, says David Stegall, deputy superintendent of innovation at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. 

photo by Kelly Sikkema

Remote learning is failing North Carolina’s students. Roughly 19% of students aren’t attending classes regularly. State officials predict fewer students would graduate or advance to the next grade. 

Republican lawmakers slammed remote learning as a “disaster” and a “wasted year,” grilling the leaders of the State Board of Education during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 1. 

“We’re creating a greater divide than we ever had,” Stegall said. “It’s about opportunity and equity, and in the current environment it will continue to grow.”

Nine months after Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools to full-time, in-person instruction, 36% of students remain in a completely virtual format. On a given day, only 48% of students sit in a classroom, said Stegall.

The arrangement isn’t working. 

Almost a fifth of students aren’t regularly attending class, and average daily attendance has dropped 4.28% since 2019. The state’s metrics don’t track the quality of that attendance, and so the data doesn’t capture full learning loss, said Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation vice president for research and director of education studies.

“We still don’t know what students are learning or not learning,” Stoops said. “We have no measures for achievement. And apparently we have no plans to assess elementary and middle school students during the school year.”

But lawmakers offered glimpses of what students have lost to virtual learning. 

“I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old that are struggling,” Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, said. “My boys were A, B students pre-COVID, now we’re celebrating a C. They’re struggling mightily.”

The effects will be long-lasting. Experts say students are losing months of learning, putting them behind in school, increasing their likelihood of dropping out, and stifling their future earnings.  

“All of those are going to be huge gaping holes in our system going forward?” Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, said. “Those challenges will prohibit the growth of our state for years if we don’t have a plan now.”

Stegall acknowledged that the state has been reactionary in its response to the pandemic. But a future strategy can undo only so much of the damage done in the present, says Stoops.

“Maybe it’s too late for that,” said Stoops. “That’s what I fear, that it’s too late to reach those students who aren’t attending school regularly — that these are the students who are falling way behind and will require significant remediation in the future.”

Republicans pushed to return children to the classroom. They repeatedly pointed to Europe, where governments kept schools open despite rising case counts and economic lockdowns. 

Cooper spared only private schools, allowing colleges, universities, and other private schools to open long before public schools. Cooper only reopened public schools in July. He permitted elementary schools to return to full in-person learning in September. 

“Why is it that private schools can go full time instruction and we can’t?” Johnson said. 

In North Carolina, most school districts now use the governor’s least-restrictive plans. About 82% of local education agencies reopened their classrooms under Plan A, or adopted Plan B’s mix of virtual and in-person learning. But 18% of local education agencies still offer only virtual learning under Plan C. 

Students are falling away from the public school system. Enrollment fell 51,565, dropping 3.3% from this time last year, with a “drastic reduction” in kindergarten enrollment. This year’s kindergarten class has 13,573 fewer students than in 2019.

But time is running out to spend federal coronavirus relief money. 

North Carolina still had 47% of the $302 million in its coffers at the end of October. Unspent relief money vanishes at the end of December, when any unspent cash will return to the federal government. 

The legislature allocated some $15 million for expanding access to Wi-Fi in homes and communities. The state had spent less than half that amount by the end of October. The department blamed state and federal restrictions. 

Stegall assured legislators only a “minimal amount” of the relief money would revert to the federal government.