It is nearing a wrap on summer of 2023, and kids are heading back to school. We’ve come a long way in three short years. Three years ago, millions of North Carolinians saw an unsure future for their families here. Today, that dark time is still a reality for some of them. Even if those without school-aged kids have moved on, it is critical to recognize the unique position that the next generation is still in.

In August of 2020, our children were forced to isolate from their friends, teachers, schools, and sports for more than a year, as executive branch orders halted athletics, ordered them to maintain six feet of distance from others, and pushed them to conduct their lives online.

In 2020 and 2021, the state legislature passed multiple measures to allow public schools and churches to re-open on a case-by-case basis; restaurants, bowling alleys, and gyms would’ve been allowed to let some light in if they were not already out of business, and student athletes would’ve been allowed to take to the field with their parents in attendance. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed those bills, including one that would’ve allowed North Carolina communities to hold fireworks displays on Independence Day. The irony on that one was clear to most. In 2022, he vetoed unmasking students in public schools, long after most of us did not wear masks to work. Without a super majority, the Republican-led legislature was unable to override his stamp.

This summer, he again got out his veto pen, this time to block legislation to expand school choice, create a Charter School Board, and give parents more say in their children’s education — despite an overall 66% approval for school choice; even among some Democrats. He claims the measures undermine public education. Now, like in 2020 and 2021, his tone-deaf approach comes at the expense of North Carolina students, parents, and teachers.

Today, the damage is still evident. Research of 2022 data shows that just 45% of North Carolina’s K-12 students passed state reading, math, and science exams. For black students it was 28%, for Hispanic students it was 32%. North Carolina schools received $6.1 billion in federal money to help remedy the impacts of the pandemic-related school closures and virtual learning. In September of 2022, 54% of those federal COVID funds remained unspent and more than half the funds that were spent went to salaries. The 20 school districts with the highest number of failing schools spent on average less than 1% on tutoring, the proven method of remedial education.

For many North Carolinians, the lockdowns ushered in an era of flexible work schedules and online meetings from summer vacation spots. For many others though, it meant shuttered family businesses, tremendous loss of lifetime income, and a shifted expectation of academic, social, and emotional development for their children.

Those for whom the lockdowns did not end their careers or hamstring their children for higher education should pause for a moment and recognize the loss their neighbors suffered. In July, Cooper spent five days isolating due to a COVID diagnosis, something that has come to be viewed as little more than a bad cold. We must acknowledge the losses kids suffered by governmental policies to strip away their educational opportunities, constantly mask them, and force them to isolate.

But were the shutdowns the right call?

A major study published in the British journal The Lancet this March ranked Florida as having the 12th lowest COVID death rate in the country. North Carolina was 27th. Researchers found that, when adjusted for age and comorbidities, Florida’s COVID death rate from 2020 to mid-2022, with fewer government-imposed closures, was lower, not higher, than North Carolina’s. Their study revealed that states’ stringency of pandemic regulations impacted infection rates to a degree, but it wasn’t associated with death rates.

While hindsight of the shutdown decision in 2020 is… well 20/20…, we can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Many of us saw billions of federal dollars in pandemic recovery flowing and assumed that someone is taking care of it. We moved on and expected students to do the same.

My own daughter started high school in August of 2020. She did not have an in-person high school class until fourth quarter of her sophomore year. For almost two years she worked with teachers who struggled to convert their lessons to online delivery, and assignments moved through a school server that was constantly overloaded. They were required to use school-issued laptops, but there were not enough to go around. She didn’t get one until second semester. Sports disappeared; friends shifted overnight. Millions of North Carolina teens and their families faced their first encounter with widespread mental health difficulties. Those who could afford a therapist (online only, of course) faced 8-month waiting lists for an appointment. We were on our own.

In 2020, the personal liberties that many of us took for granted disappeared. For the high school classes of 2020 through 2024 that time will shape the rest of their lives. For those who don’t have a teen in their lives, know that most of them don’t have the “world is my oyster” attitude of our generation. They recognize the holes in their education, and those with resources are trying to fill them. They view their futures very differently. On the plus side, they and their parents see more options ahead than just a 4-year college. They are digital natives so they will adapt to online work while appreciating the value of face-to-face. They also have an earned suspicion of government.

Left over from her online class days, my daughter has a hastily written note taped to the wall over her desk. On it, a quote attributed to Alexander Hamilton, co-author of the Federalist Papers and fierce advocate for limited federal government. “Those who stand for nothing fall for everything.”

This perfectly embodies one lesson for this generation of students, as it should for all of us.

Donna King is editor-in-chief of The Carolina Journal.