Our legislators were correct in forcing the issue to reopen our schools. Their legislation was an acknowledgement of what most have realized, namely that children staring at screens for long periods of the day does not equal the learning they would achieve being in the classroom. Additionally, there is evidence of increased emotional problems in children, partly because they miss social interaction with other students.
When the pandemic first hit, we correctly discontinued in-class learning while we learned more about the virus, who was most susceptible and how it impacted the lives of our children. Data has demonstrated that young children (grades k-5) were neither getting the virus in large numbers, having serious effects from it, nor were they spreaders. Health officials have developed workable protocols for returning to class, especially for elementary children. Our private schools have already overcome many of these challenges while protecting the health of students, teachers and workers. Admittedly their classes are usually much smaller and their buildings more modern, but we can learn from them.
The legislation our General Assembly passed, while sound in principle, needs to allow some flexibility for particular schools and systems. Older schools have more ventilation concerns, classrooms need to rearranged, more intense frequent cleaning is necessary, bus schedules will need revamping and cafeterias will have to adapt. Each system and each building will require unique solutions, however flexibility cannot be an excuse for teachers, administrators and staff to put up roadblocks to reopening. Where there is a will, we must find the way.
Let us be clear about our priorities. We have to respect and listen to parents. Let us also emphatically state we value our teachers and school personnel and need to ensure their safety. But our first priority has to be our students. We cannot lose a generation of children who fell behind and never recovered. What is needed now is action and we trust our lawmakers will be receptive to additional staffing and expenditures necessary to make what they just legislated work effectively.
The first step is to assess the grade-level progress of each student. Teachers need to know how much remediation is needed. Nowhere is this more imperative than with reading and basic math skills. A child who cannot read or do math at grade level is never going to succeed; the material gets progressively more difficult.
We may discover large numbers of children have not learned at appropriate grade levels and need to drop back. Summer school may be a necessity in order to catch up. Parents might not like it, because they prefer having blocks of summer months for vacations, especially if the virus allows more travel and freedoms this summer. Teachers like having time off also. But again, the number one priority is our children, and we need to do what is best for the most of them.
On the other hand, we might find that large numbers of students have grasped the basics but there are some who may need additional tutoring or instruction. We cannot leave these students behind and need to be prepared for additional instruction and attention to help them catch up.
Nobody was properly prepared for how things developed back in 2020, but there is little excuse for not planning ahead now for the new school year that begins in August. We have months to get prepared.
The bottom line is that we must do what is needed to keep kids first in education.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at email@example.com.