The empty halls at West Greene Elementary in Snow Hill, NC, in April. Many students returned to in-person learning in the Greene County school in April. They've been trying to make up for lost time since. (Photo by Billy Ball) Making Up for Lost Time in North Carolina Schools
The empty halls at West Greene Elementary in Snow Hill, NC, in April. Many students returned to in-person learning in the Greene County school in April. They've been trying to make up for lost time since. (Photo by Billy Ball)

Inside Greene County’s use of federal and state COVID relief on summer camps, extended school days, and more.

Like most 7-year-olds, Jayden’s backpack sits impossibly large on his shoulders. He’s all arms and legs and ears, transcendently sweet and he doesn’t even know it. 

“I’m nervous but excited,” he chirps before hopping out of the back seat to glide through West Greene Elementary’s double doors. “Do great, be great always!” his mom, Shannon Edwards, shouts after him. 

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Shannon Edwards and her 7-year-old son Jayden of Greene County, NC. Edwards said she noticed Jayden struggling with some of his basics during virtual learning, but he’s bounced back since returning to the classroom.

That was mid-April in Snow Hill, NC. Like many Greene County kids, Jayden was returning to in-person classrooms for the first time in a year. Weeks later, much to some educators’ chagrin, students like Jayden were scheduled to commence end-of-grade testing. 

“Can you really get an accurate reflection of a child’s academic growth based on a year this choppy?” Daphanie Jones, the third-grade teacher who leads Greene County’s chapter of the NC Association of Educators, told Cardinal & Pine in April.

Those results will be released in North Carolina in the fall, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll bring good news.

Coronavirus made in-person learning too risky, so the virtual classroom, while unappealing to many, was a necessity. But most educators, not to mention K-12 researchers, acknowledge that the virtual classroom can’t compare to the real thing, particularly as it concerns students who were already struggling. 

The task then for federal, state, and local governments is to replace whatever students might have lost in the last year, understanding that the pandemic only exacerbated long-simmering inequities between the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts.  

“This isn’t going to be solved in a few months,” says Mary Ann Wolf, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a K-12 policy and research center based in Raleigh. “It’s probably going to take a few years.”

Indeed, it’s possible that while the virus may eventually be a relatively minor concern in the United States, the impacts on students could linger.

The federal American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in March deployed $125 billion for the nation’s public schools to address those aftereffects. It included broad flexibility for local school districts and publicly-funded charters in how they spent those COVID relief dollars over the next three and a half school years, focusing on schools with a larger share of students from low-income families. The massive federal relief bill also required schools to use at least 5% of funds, or about $6.1 billion across the country, specifically to offset lost learning time. 

“Remote learning has worked for some, but we know students aren’t where they need to be on proficiency,” Phil Cook, Jayden’s principal at West Greene Elementary, told Cardinal & Pine. “It’s not going to take a month to fix this.”

Jayden’s mom knows this. Edwards, a nurse, shifted her hours to the weekends so she could maintain strict school hours in the home, regardless of whether classes were virtual or not, and Jayden did as well as any kid in an impossible year. 

Still, his basics were slipping, Edwards said in April. He struggled with doubles in arithmetic, 4+4 and 8+8. “I think I spoon fed him a lot,” she said. “He’s not a gadget kid. He’s an outdoor kid. He wants to be raising baby chicks or digging up crawdads.”

There’s a fatigue to Edwards that’s immediately recognizable. When COVID-19 closed the schools, it left communities and educators to cobble together passable remote learning, patching a massive hole in their children’s lives. Parents burned a lot of energy being surrogate teachers, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, and more. Today, they’re like jet contrails, spent fuel billowing across the sky. 

“I’m just going to have to pray over him,” Edwards said wearily, considering Jayden’s end-of-grade tests. 

In the South, that expression can be used like a sigh. Most things have been out of our hands in the last year, this one too.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint.

West Greene Elementary in Snow Hill, NC.
Students’ written notes for a teacher at West Greene Elementary in Snow Hill, NC. Many students were out of classrooms for a year during the pandemic, and districts like Greene County Schools are trying to make up for lost time now using state and federal relief dollars. (Photo by Billy Ball)

In North Carolina, local educators have always had to be multitaskers. But in the last year, they’ve been full-blown circus performers, juggling the needs of parents and students in both virtual and in-person classrooms, walking a tightrope between keeping themselves and their students safe. All this, under the watchful eye of the lions at the state legislature, where a witheringly critical conservative majority share power over the education budget with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Cooper and lawmakers couldn’t reach an accord on a 2020 budget, chiefly because of differences in their plans for education spending, teacher raises, and tax cuts. They’re on a similar trajectory in 2021, making federal aid for schools even more important this year, particularly in poorer and more rural districts.

In districts with smaller tax bases, the per-pupil funding is significantly lower than their more urban peers. And on average, North Carolina’s statewide spending per-pupil is several thousand dollars short of the national standard, Wolf of the Public School Forum points out. The pandemic’s blow to school systems has only complicated this long-running dilemma. How can a district with less money to throw at lost learning time compete with a larger district?

“Something we’re all concerned about is how COVID has impacted that even more,” said Wolf. “We’re talking about the academic, the social, the emotional for these kids. Our rural districts are going to need very strong support. How can we do this? How can we build that pipeline?”

North Carolina received about $3.6 billion for K-12 relief this year in the Democrats’ federal American Rescue Plan. Roughly $629 million of that was budgeted for “learning recovery.” At the local level, that means after-school programs, summer learning, extended school days, and more. How that relief is distributed in poorer and rural districts with a limited tax base will be pivotal to judging the success of the COVID relief bill. 

“We’re going to have to do multiple summers [and] multiple after-school programs over the next couple of years, which is why this money is a godsend and why we have three or four years to spend it,” said Greene County Schools Superintendent Patrick Miller, one of the state’s stronger supporters in local districts for post-pandemic supplementary learning. 

“Somebody at the federal level recognizes this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Miller. “It’s going to take time to get these kids back to grade level.”

Indeed, the student body in less populous counties like Greene might not be as large — the district serves a modest 2,800 students in 6 schools — but the need is there. Federal lawmakers emphasized flexibility in the relief package for districts and schools because not every district approached the pandemic in the same way. 

“There are 115 different plans,” Miller said, referring to the number of local public school districts in the state. “There are 115 different community needs. What’s good for Greene may not be good for Carteret or Asheville City Schools or Wake. We need the flexibility.”

Greene County is planning to offer students the option for extended school days and summer learning in each of the next three summers. Indeed, North Carolina’s state legislature required summer learning options in districts this year. Greene County’s summer program began June 14 and it will run Monday through Thursday each week until July 29, with the exception of the week of the Fourth of July. 

Miller said the district didn’t struggle to find employees to work this summer because they were able to use federal relief dollars to offer teachers $35 an hour and school staff like bus drivers $20 an hour.  

Many districts chose to remain closed for in-person classes for most of the 2020 academic year. Others like Greene County adopted a hybrid plan, bringing back a portion of families who chose in-person learning. 

Macaria Aguirre-Palma, a mother of two Greene County students in third and fifth grade, kept her children Daniel and Bianca home in the 2020-2021 school year. Aguirre-Palma, who works as an interpreter at the local hospital, said she was lucky to have a manager who gave her flexibility in her work schedule so she could oversee school in her home.

She said Daniel and Bianca managed the year fine, something she credits to a regular routine at home, although she said it will be important for schools to get a handle on how lost classroom time impacted students.

“They need to try to get a little bit of normalcy back in their lives, for their social skills,” she said.  

As COVID wanes, North Carolina Classrooms Look to Bounce Back
Macaria Aguirre-Palma (right) of Greene County, NC, with her children Daniel (left) and Bianca (middle). Thanks to her flexible work hours, Aguirre-Palma said she was able to guide her children through the virtual classroom in the pandemic year.

Miller said about 40% of his district’s students opted for the remote learning option like Aguirre-Palma for much of the year. 

Not everything went smoothly. A community group’s in-person performance of “Beauty and the Beast” in late February was connected to dozens of coronavirus cases, impacting public and private school classrooms in Greene County and neighboring school districts in Lenoir and Pitt counties. 

Districts also had to balance educators’ capacity with students’ needs. Teachers faced a once-in-a-generation challenge hopping between virtual and in-person classrooms. And they did so with relatively modest pay, particularly in rural districts lacking the money to chip in supplements. 

“Our teachers are worn slam-out,” Principal Cook at West Greene Elementary said in March. “It’s been tough. You don’t go to college to learn how to remote teach. And teaching is not a normal 9 to 5 job. It’s an exhausting job.” 

Cook, a former sports coach from Buffalo, NY, has the air of a team builder about him. A Buffalo Bills football helmet sits on his desk, and candy is strewn about the office in small bowls and plates. 

He says state and federal policymakers have to listen to local educators. That goes doubly during the pandemic. Teachers need pay raises and incentives to participate in supplementary teaching if they’re going to sacrifice any of their time off. 

Jones of the Greene County NCAE said she wouldn’t volunteer to teach summer school. “This last year, it’s been draining,” she said. 

“Legislators need to listen to people who are actually in the classroom,” Jones told Cardinal & Pine. “They need to reach out to people who are doing this every day. They need to consider the input of people who are actually in the trenches and provide us the support we need to close these gaps.”

“I can’t slow him down.”

Truth be told, Jayden prefers first base.  But he’ll take center field, Shannon Edwards tells me, which makes a kind of sense. Why waste that speed and energy on first base? Let Jayden, a free-ranger, roam the outfield.

Wherever Jayden plays, Edwards says, it’s better than 2020 when COVID-19 made most sports impractical. Jayden’s also returning to his local basketball team. Edwards wasn’t comfortable with indoor games until recently, as vaccinations continued to drive the rate of new coronavirus infections down.

After Jayden returned to the classroom in April, he did well enough on his end-of-grade tests to opt out of summer school this year. He improved at his doubles in arithmetic, and he even came home with new problem-solving skills.

“I’m not going to say everything’s peachy,” Edwards says. “But it did get better.”

She has an eye on his progress, though. This was never going to be a quick fix, even if he is back to digging up crawdads. 

“I see that light back in him,” she says. “That little light, that little fire you see in children, it’s there now.”

Edwards is tired still, but for all the right reasons. 

“I mean,” she says, “I can’t slow him down.”