“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” – Milton Friedman

Lately my social media is peppered with “back-to-school” pictures as in-person classes begin to resume, many for the first time in a year. But with the excited smiles and new shoes, you can also see anxiety, exhaustion, and betrayal in those pictures. The Centers for Disease Control released a study that said in 2020, American children from age 5 to 16 were 10 times as likely to die from suicide than from coronavirus. Emergency room visits for suicide attempts is up 31% among kids 12 to 14 years old. More than 75% of N.C. third-graders failed to test at grade level this year. Shutting down schools has taken a huge toll on children, and their parents will not forget it.

They will not forget the anniversary of “two-weeks-to-stop-the-spread” or the ABC Science Collaborative findings that revealed children are less likely to spread COVID, particularly to adults. They will not forget the NCAE and teachers who vehemently refused to teach in person, nor the teachers who stayed silent as students suffered emotionally and academically. At the top of the list for many parents are those elected officials who chastised them for demanding that schools reopen but will ask for their vote in just 18 months.

This year has awoken a beast. This is Roy Cooper’s H.B. 2 and the albatross for thousands of elected officials across the state. Parents will not forget their school board members who even today refuse to vote for opening classrooms to students who want to be there. They will not forget their representatives in the General Assembly, and on the Council of State – those who stood by and silently accepted the governor’s continued widespread school closures, despite the Emergency Power Act that requires him to consult with the Council of State. Many parents may not have paid much attention to state and local politics, until now. They may have operated under the assumption that, at the end of the day, traditional public schools always default to what is best for the students.

Voters’ rude awakening in 2020 will be reflected at the polls in 2022. This will usher in broader demand for school choice policy. Right now, in Alabama, Kentucky, Idaho, and Texas, state legislatures are moving legislation that expands scholarship programs and allows state education money to follow the child, not the school. If North Carolina had that policy in place a year ago, families would have been allowed to send their child to schools operating in person if they chose, rather than being forced into school by a screen. There is no denying that students who have spent the last year in private or charter school classrooms have an advantage over those who were in a traditional public school. While devastating to students, this experience will revolutionize how parents see public education. More and more are taking ownership over education because, at the end of the day, only parents default to the best interests of their child.

Among the challenges in an education crisis is that it only directly affects the slice of North Carolina families who have children in public schools. Even Cooper would not have been directly affected; his daughters are now grown, and one attended a private all-girls high school in Raleigh. He did not spend the last year praying for his child’s mental health or trying to help decipher instructional videos with poor quality audio and broken links.

Moving forward, the smiling faces in those social media posts need help more than ever. They are a year or more behind and we cannot forget that in the coming months and years. They need to be treated with the grace, kindness, and understanding that they deserve. They will require a change in policy that allows college-style “drops” and grade replacement, and they should be allowed to transfer make-up credits from private or online institutions. They do not have the academic runway to be a summer school experiment.

HB2 cost political careers and the state’s economic activity. Regardless of how authors explained the nuances of the bill, it still sparked outrage and made North Carolina one of the early victims of cancel culture. This time, millions more are affected, and the true cost won’t be known for decades.

Donna King is the mother of a high school student in Wake County public schools and a panelist on “Front Row with Marc Rotterman” airing Fridays at 8:30 PM on PBS NC.