Mysty Blagg’s twins, like most public school students in North Carolina, are falling behind.
Academically. Probably socially and emotionally, too.
Blagg’s two 7-year-olds, Reagan and Luke, attend school in Wake County, which — in part because of the governor’s lockdowns and union pressure — opted to start the fall semester with full-time remote learning. As have more than 70 others throughout the state.
For Blagg and her twins, it’s a trying experience. Blagg has a busy life, beyond the children. She’s a student at Campbell University law school and she, too, takes classes online. Balancing her own lessons while trying to keep her twins on track hasn’t been easy.
Mothers make constant sacrifices. For their families, their children.
Blagg delayed a law internship this year. That was lost after the schools closed. She’s staying home with the children while her husband works. The kids spend the day staring at computer screens, and they’re sick of it. It’s a school year like no other.
So much lost. So much more taken.
The classrooms are empty. Playgrounds deserted. School buildings, with hallways once filled with the excited chatter of students, now silent. Forgotten even.
Science and data, Gov. Roy Cooper says. Schools aren’t yet safe, he says. But reopening schools for in-person learning is the No. 1 priority, he says. The debate has become wildly political.
The 2020-21 school year began online for more than 1.1 million students in North Carolina, even as other states have reopened schools with appropriate safety measures. North Carolina schools not fully remote have employed a hybrid model; groups of students alternating between attending class in-person and online at home.
Teacher groups are pushing school boards to keep schools closed. The North Carolina Association of Educators, a left-leaning teachers’ group, has taken the lead.
The NCAE condemned Cooper’s decision to allow school districts to bring elementary students back to classrooms starting Oct. 5. It’s too dangerous, they said. Too few resources to keep teachers and students safe.
NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly is slamming the panic button, taking turns with other union leaders. Teachers must take the fight to local school boards, superintendents, and principals to keep elementary schools closed, Bryan Proffitt, NCAE vice president, said during an emergency meeting Sept. 17.
Groups of NCAE members have shown up to school board meetings to protest reopening, carrying signs proclaiming fears of getting sick. Reopening schools could put older students, teachers, and staff at-risk from catching the respiratory virus, they say.
But it’s all about the students, of course. No. 1 priority and all.
Parents — who are anxious, stressed — have signs of their own. To them, it truly is about the children, whose futures are at stake. They need to be in school not only to learn but to develop and nurture friendships, connections.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the state into a game of jumped trade-offs. So far, the left is winning.
Dan Forest, the Republican lieutenant governor who’s running against Cooper, has returned fire, as have Republican leaders in the General Assembly, most notably Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
Kids are learning absolutely nothing, Forest said in a televised debate with Cooper on Oct. 14. “They’ll log onto class and lay on the sofa. Special needs kids need teachers in the classroom. All kids need teachers in the classroom.”
The Harnett County Board of Education even passed a resolution pressuring Cooper to “immediately implement an expedited plan to allow the Harnett County Public School System to return to normal operations” in a resolution passed this week.
Cooper’s refusal to do so because of political pressure from the far-left NCAE will widen education disparities and, according to Harvard experts, ‘some children may never recover.'” state Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, says in a news release.
Berger, in a release, says, “On every single COVID decision, the governor refused to let locals make any decisions for themselves. But now, on perhaps the most critical decision of all — whether to reopen schools — the governor has abandoned all responsibility and passed off decision making to local districts.”
Berger continued, “Any reasonable person would look at what’s going on and conclude that Gov. Cooper is harming children by keeping them out of school because he’s afraid of angering his allies in the far-left NCAE.”
Blagg doesn’t fault the school district for the quality of remote learning over the spring. The sudden lockdowns didn’t allow much time to prepare for a robust online learning experience. She’s less forgiving about the state of remote learning for the fall semester.
School districts could have repurposed established homeschooling curriculum and online learning material for virtual learning, Blagg said.
Instead, they decided to reinvent the wheel. Ka-clunk, ka-clunk.
The typical school day features a series of live sessions with students logging on and off throughout the day. Between lessons, it’s easy for children to get out of learning mode, Blagg said. She has to wrangle the twins to get them to sign back in.
In a 20-minute session, the teacher spends a good chunk of it troubleshooting technical problems, she said. Children have trouble logging on, getting their audio or the camera to work, all of which takes away from the day’s lesson.
“I just don’t feel like they’re learning a lot,” Blagg said.
Luke, her son, struggles most with reading. While in school, students have access to individual plans, but virtual learning has largely taken away personalized learning. Luke gets extra help in reading, 10 minutes a week.
“We are just moving backward right now,” Blagg said.
Drop it into reverse and hit the gas. We’re failing and quickly falling behind, says Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
“It will take years before we understand the extent of the physical, psychological, social, and educational harms produced by the widespread use of remote learning,” Stoops says.
“For most students, remote learning is no substitute for in-person instruction. And for those who have limited resources at home, we may discover that the widespread use of remote learning exacerbates already sizable achievement and skills gaps.”
Blagg knows her twins aren’t ready for the next grade level. They need to be held back — an attempt to recoup what was lost over virtual sessions.
Education is an equalizing force, a means of lifting children out of poverty, of breaking what can be a perpetual cycle. There’s already a gulf between low-income students and their wealthier peers.
When it comes to academic achievement, COVID-19 — not to mention the governor’s policies and teachers’ unions — threatens to widen that gap.
Low-income families can’t afford to hire tutors to supplement full-time remote learning. Some sacrifice paying rent on time so they can afford monthly internet bills. Putting food on the table is a top priority.
While school districts offer mobile wifi hotspots and provide students with Chromebooks to make virtual learning a little easier, it’s a certainty that some students aren’t getting all the help they need.
How many students will fall through the expanding, deepening cracks? Who will get left behind, to struggle for years simply to catch up. Maybe.
“Virtual learning is exhausting,” Blagg said.
Luke is frustrated with his lessons. He’s having trouble following along. It’s making him anxious, an anxiety that has manifested into anger.
Blagg recalls an evening when she and her son yelled at one another. Back and forth. Again and again. She doesn’t remember exactly why.
“We were both just frustrated,” Blagg said.
Blagg and her husband realized it was time to get help. They plan to enroll Luke in therapy.
Reagan, her daughter, zones out when she’s bored. She clicks through her online work without really taking it in.
“If something doesn’t interest her, she just checks out,” Blagg said.
Some school districts will allow elementary students to return to school after Cooper gave his blessing Sept. 17. A consensus is forming among health experts that young children are less likely to suffer serious symptoms from the virus or spread it to others.
Wake County will allow K-3 students to return for full-time in person learning Nov. 16.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Blagg said.
What months of virtual learning will mean for children in the long run isn’t clear.
The social and emotional learning of students, particularly younger students, will take a hit, said David Hill, a pediatrician and adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine.
While at school, young children learn about sharing and taking turns. The younger the child, the harder it is to replicate these lessons in a virtual environment.
“The things we see kids doing on the playground are developmental skills that stay with them for life,” Hill said.
Schools don’t just provide students with an education. They can serve as a safe haven for children who face abuse at-home. For some, school is the only place they can get a hot meal.
The school system acts as an early warning system to identify cases of abuse and neglect. Like doctors, teachers are mandatory reporters, meaning they are legally obligated to report signs of abuse, Hill said.
A 2018 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report that teachers and school staff were responsible for reporting 20.5% of child abuse cases — the highest of any other reporting group including law enforcement and social workers.
Numerous cases may go unreported while students are at home, Hill said. Mental and emotional health. Both concerns, both points of anxiety.
Physical education, too, Hill said. Public schools work recess and exercise into the curriculum. Parents may not.
“It’s harder in the home environment for many children to access the sort of scheduled, regular exercise that is reinforced in schools,” Hill said.
In Blagg’s neighborhood, the children head to the playground during lunch. It’s a makeshift recess helping the children stay active, but it also gives them the chance to see each other face-to-face.
“School-based physical education programs and interscholastic athletics programs are the primary sources of regular physical activity for many children and young adults,” Stoops said.
Childhood obesity was already a serious problem before the pandemic, Stoops said. The problem could get worse this year with many children stuck at home. Some children excel at learning from home, but others don’t.
It’s all about choice, and the pandemic has reinforced its importance, Stoops said.
Parents know what’s best for their children. The government doesn’t.
Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina hosted a roundtable Oct. 5 with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, state lawmakers, and a few parents to discuss the need for more school choice options.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen students with special needs get left behind as they struggle behind a computer, single-parent families have been put into the impossible situation of juggling work, distance learning, and accessing child care,” Mike Long, president of PEFNC, told the roundtable attendees.
Parents should decide how and where their children learn, DeVos said. Money should follow the student. If schools won’t reopen, then parents should be able to take their children elsewhere, she said.
Some of Blagg’s friends send their children to private schools, many of which have been able to bring children into the classrooms. That’s too expensive for the Blaggs, especially since they went down from two incomes to one. Homeschooling would be a challenge, too.
Futures are at stake. At risk.
A study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that a “typical current student might expect something on the order of 3% lower career earnings if schools immediately returned to 2019 performance levels,” a news release says. Disadvantaged students, however, “will almost certainly see larger impacts.”
The study concludes students whose schools were closed as part of the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term losses of income, nations will have a less skilled labor force and therefore a lower GDP throughout the remainder of the century, and students will face setbacks in their socio-emotional and motivational development.
“In sum, learning opportunities were significantly reduced during the school closures, and the reductions were greatest for disadvantaged children,” the study concludes, according to the release.
Specifically, the study found school closures could lower a nation’s gross domestic product by 1.5% through the rest of the century. If school systems are “slow to return to prior levels of performance” GDP could be even lower. In the U.S, the authors estimate that’s equal to a $14.2 trillion loss.
“This study backs up what we’ve been hearing anecdotally ― long-term school closures are hurting our students, especially students that are already disadvantaged,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said. “Preventing them from returning to the classroom for full-time, in-person instruction is setting them up for a lifetime of lost potential. It is imperative the governor provide parents the option of full-time in-person instruction. The children’s futures and our state’s future depend on it.”
Blagg is studying for the bar exam in December. She’s determined to pass. For her future, and for her children’s.
After all, she, and her husband, know best.