Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have consistently maintained that the risk of spread of the COVID-19 virus among young children is low. But that hasn’t stopped policymakers like N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper from — for most of the past year — keeping in-person instruction closed for all K-12 students. Many families have suffered as a result. 

Rachel and Troy Ackerman of Raleigh are one such family. Their 4-year-old son, Aiden, is on the autism spectrum and has a sensory processing disorder. 

The Ackermans knew the importance of early intervention for children like Aiden — to get him the therapies and treatment he needs — is crucial. Their first meeting with Wake County to begin the process of getting Aiden an Individualized Education Plan went well, but then everything shut down because of Cooper’s executive order in March 2020. 

It was a lull of six months, when Aiden wasn’t getting the in-person services he needed. Instead, his occupational therapy and speech therapy sessions were virtual. 

“Virtual of anything with Aiden doesn’t work,” Rachel said. “It was pointless doing it that way. We’ve done the best we can at home, but it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions.” 

“What does virtual school look like for Aiden? It’s basically chasing him around,” said Troy. “It’s a lot of going from room to room with him. Trying to keep him engaged and his attention focused.”  

Rachel said this virtualonly format was “devastating” for them, as Aiden struggles the most with social interactions.

“He needs the physical space to thrive and just learn what you’re trying to teach him,” she said. “I knew that if he had that consistency of a classroom, of being around a teacher and the same kids, that would be the best thing for him.” 

When September arrived, the Ackermans were finally able to schedule more evaluations for Aiden on the path to getting his IEP. It was through these evaluations that Wake County Public Schools determined he qualified for half-day pre-school, but again it was to be exclusively virtual. 

Thankfully, the virtual-only environment only lasted about six weeks. By late October, Aiden was back in the classroom and thriving. He was participating in groups, at recess, and at center time. Then the holiday season hit, COVID-19 infections spiked, and Wake County shuttered all schools again. 

Rachel said, “I remember breaking down and crying when I read the email that things were on hold until further notice from Wake County. I had friends constantly remind me that God has a planand He is not surprised by this. To have faith and trust.” 

Learning losses 

Academic losses for students like Aiden could be felt for years into the future. But that is the case for many students across the state and the country. A recent report by the McKinsey & Cofound that minority students stand to lose as much as 12 to 16 months of learning in mathematics — compared to five to nine months for white students — if classrooms didn’t reopen soon. 

Here, the results of end-of-grade student test scores are already showing potential impacts from pandemic-related school closures. According to recent data from the N.C. Department of Public Instructiona majority of students failed end-of-grade tests in fall 2020. 

Yet some still argue that learning losses are fictitious. In a tweet, N.C. Association of Educators president Tamika Kelly called learning loss “a false construct” and went so far as to place “learning loss” in quotes, questioning its veracity. The NCAE is the state affiliate of the left-wing teacher’s union the National Association of Educators. 

“Despite claims to the contrary, learning loss is real. Our most vulnerable student populations were less likely to receive high-quality instruction during the pandemic,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “As a result, their academic progress slowed, and they are less prepared for the next grade or subject. 

“As a parent with two teenagers in public schools of choice, I had a front-row seat to the struggles of young adults trying to maintain academic progress in a remote learning environment,” Stoops added. “Schools should be commended for trying to make the best out of a bad situation. Cooper should be chastised for single-handedly impeding the opening of schools despite a scientific consensus that doing so was safe.” 

Remedies for academic declines 

The most obvious solution to these problems is to reopen schools, but Stoops pointed out that a key part of the puzzle will be educational remediation combined with expanded school choice. 

“As a state, we will need to invest in remediation programs focused on providing intensive tutoring in math and, to a lesser extent, reading,” he said. “I believe that an Education Savings Account or ESA program would be the ideal vehicle for allowing parents to choose the public, private, or nonprofit tutoring provider that best meets the needs of their children.” 

While public schools remained closed across the state, many private schools opened to families with proper mitigation and safety measures in place. Official numbers have yet to be released, but many anticipate a jump in enrollment in schools of choice both during and after the pandemic. So far, around 381,000 students are enrolled in schools of choice, including 150,000 in homeschools, 127,000 in public charters, and 104,000 in private schools.