School closures were a big mistake
Closing down school buildings for many months last year — and offering poorly planned and executed virtual schooling as an inadequate substitute — proved to be a disaster for North Carolina children, families, and the education system itself.
We can say this now with great confidence. When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck North Carolina in March 2020, no such confidence was possible. Although I disagreed with the decision at the time, I understood why officials closed public schools for the final three months of the 2019-20 academic year.
Failing to reopen them fully for 2020-21 was, however, indefensible. By then the risk profile of the pandemic was better known. Older North Carolinians, particularly those over 65 or with preexisting co-morbidities such as obesity, were at significant risk of hospitalization or death. Children weren’t, and still aren’t.
How much damage did school closures do? Let us count the ways.
Nearly a third of North Carolina third-graders failed the grade. Their reading scores, even after intensive reading camps and retests this summer, were too low to permit them to advance normally to the next grade. Some are now repeating third grade. Others were placed in special classes in an attempt to accelerate them into fourth-grade proficiency by next spring.
The academic wreckage extends far beyond third grade, which just happens to be a focal grade for our accountability system. Just 39% of first-graders scored at grade level in reading. For the K-12 population as a whole, only 45% of our public-school students passed their state exams this year.
We can all hope that, through strategic investments and heroic efforts, many of these young North Carolinians will recoup the learning they lost during the shutdowns. But we shouldn’t have to hope for the best. We should have been spared the worst. Schoolchildren were neither significantly at risk from COVID nor a significant vector of transmission for COVID. By the fall of last year, policymakers should have known that.
The downsides weren’t limited to learning loss. Even for those students who did okay (or in a few cases better than okay) in virtual learning last year, their absence from school imposed massive burdens on North Carolina families. Some parents were compelled to cut back on their work hours or leave their jobs altogether, reducing household incomes and adding more stress to their already stressful experience with the pandemic. Alas, the pot sometimes boiled over, leading to tragic cases of neglect, substance abuse, or domestic violence.
And for public education itself, school closures have produced a crisis of public confidence. While some officials and educators voiced their support for struggling families and called for a rapid return to in-person schooling, many others didn’t. Some were condescending and obnoxious in their dismissal of parental complaints and insisted nonsensically on working from home until the “end” of the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, the share of North Carolina children enrolled in public schools dropped precipitously last year. Moreover, the share of North Carolina parents posing tough questions to education officials and school boards skyrocketed.
Parents aren’t just upset about last year’s school closures, or about mask mandates they deem unnecessary. Many of these parents are upset by what they learned from direct observation of the lessons, textbooks, and assignments their children received while “learning” from home. If anyone think these parents will be silenced by bureaucratic bluster — or attempts to concoct a national specter of “domestic terrorism” from a few outrageous incidences of threats to school officials — they are misreading the room.
Again, I don’t really blame North Carolina leaders for mistakes they may have made during the initial few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. My own views evolved during the spring and summer of 2020 as I consumed more information and listened to more briefings. But by the start of the 2020-21 school year, it was time to pivot to a different approach for schools. It didn’t happen. We’ll all be paying the price for many years to come.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.