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Perspective | Realism required to offset pandemic-induced ‘losses’ to education

The coronavirus epidemic has spawned a public health crisis and an economic crisis. These interlocked crises have sent shock waves crashing through family life, through retail stores large and small, through local news organizations, and through commercial sports and entertainment. And, as a headline this week put it, the crises have sent education into a dynamic of “drastic experiment.”

A narrative of numbers plays out day by day. At mid-week, North Carolina had counted more than 7,700 cases of COVID-19, and more than 275 deaths. The extent of job losses is now measured by the more than 670,000 applications for unemployment insurance. Yet to be measured is a rise in poverty that inevitably follows such a steep drop in people at work.

Amid the distress, the traditional news media and digital platforms offer up stories of caring physicians, nurses, and emergency responders, and of courageous clerks and cashiers showing up so their customers can buy food and medicine. Across North Carolina and elsewhere, valiant educators pivoted swiftly from in-class to off-site teaching, while cafeteria workers and bus drivers delivered daily meals to students, and their families, in need.

In stress-filled days, people naturally yearn for evidence of mutual support, and they hope that recovery will produce a stronger community, state, and nation. Still, this moment requires realism, defined as recognizing and preparing to deal with difficulties. For North Carolina’s complex education network — elected officials, nonprofits, business leaders, and school administrators and teachers — several kinds of “losses’’ will define the short- and longer-range agenda.

Learning loss

Research has long pointed to the educational erosion that occurs during summer vacation. And now, even with teachers doing their best to adapt quickly, erosion is in store. The state will face challenges in making up loss ground, with revising the school calendar and expansion of school counselors and nurses as key issues.

A Pew Research national survey found that eight out of 10 parents with children in elementary, middle, or high schools say they are at least somewhat satisfied with the instruction offered during school closures. Still, Pew reported, two out of three parents “express at least some concern about their children falling behind in school, with 28% saying they are very concerned.”

“Lower-income parents express more concern than those in higher-income groups about their children potentially falling behind,” Pew reported.

Loss of play

For K-12 students, learning comes not only in math, English, history, and science content, but also in relationships to teachers and peers, in exercise and extracurricular activities. The phrase “drastic experiment’’ appears in the headline over an article by Caroline Preston,  a senior editor of The Hechinger Report, which quotes scholars on the importance of play in both  cognitive and social-skills development.

“For younger kids, in particular, missing out on play with peers could take a toll,’’ writes Preston.

Loss of momentum

On January 21, Superior Court Judge David Lee issued the latest ruling in the long-running Leandro case. He gave the parties 60 days to produce an initial short-term plan to address the education inequities he outlined.

The 60-day deadline came precisely in the week that Gov. Roy Cooper ordered schools closed at least until May 15. Leandro faded into the background as state and local education authorities scrambled to implement the governor’s order for ensuring education and providing “remote learning’’ through the end of the school year.

Revenue loss

In North Carolina, state government bears the largest share of public school support. Around $10 billion of state money accounts for roughly 60% of the K-12 funding. Over the past decade, a series of tax cuts diminished revenue by upwards of $4 billion, leaving state government more dependent on economic growth to provide revenues to increase teacher pay and support schools and other public institutions and programs.

But now recession, not growth, stares at the state, with a fall-off in sales and income taxes a certainty. The state has more than $3 billion in “rainy day’’ and unexpended funds — plus federal stimulus — to address the immediate emergency this year. But making up loss ground in education will require realism in re-designing tax policy for crisis recovery and for future resilience.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.