(Image via Shutterstock) NC Education During a Pandemic
(Image via Shutterstock)

With the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering K-12 schools across North Carolina, state leaders will soon consider ways to make up weeks of lost instruction time. But tourism advocates aren’t waiting to make their case for maintaining students’ traditional summer break. 

Vince Chelena, executive director of the N.C. Travel Industry Association, told lawmakers on a specially-convened legislative panel this week that any push to bring kids back to school early in the next academic year would only exacerbate things for an already hard-hit tourism industry.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Chelena.]

House and Senate lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly have been loath to rule out any measures for bailing out a wounded economy in the coming months, even with local and state government leaders likely facing looming budget deficits this year. 

But how state education leaders respond to a loss in classroom time that could extend for weeks or months, well into students’ traditional summer break, will be key. Research has long documented the impacts of lost instruction time on student performance. And with studies connecting lengthy summer breaks with a drop in performance, the so-called “summer learning loss,” the time off might have a compounding effect.

As a result, legislators will inevitably have to balance the economy and education as they develop their COVID-19 response plan.

State Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat who sits on a House select COVID-19 committee, said there’s no clear plan for returning students to school yet. He added there hasn’t been any “serious”  consideration of an early return to school in the next academic year, although leaders are likely to invest in additional summer enrichment opportunities for students. 

But Meyer said lawmakers will have to be open to conversations about the school calendar. 

“We need a policy for calendar flexibility for some districts to be able to make up the time,” Meyer said. “That is going to require us to think creatively and not adhere to the calendar mandates from the tourism industry that we’ve had in the last decade.” 

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said education should be the top priority for legislators when the pandemic subsides. 

“If that means an early start (to the next school year), most of our public educators understand that,” Jewell said.

Tourism industry officials have often criticized suggestions from NC education leaders that lawmakers consider shortened summer breaks to address summer learning loss. 

Graig Meyer
N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, Durham

State and local leaders will also be pressed into considering the cost, noting it costs the state about $200 million a week to run the schools, not counting local expenses. The state traditionally pays for operations while locals manage capital costs, although local districts have been called upon to take on more operation costs in the last decade as the Republican-controlled legislature grew more conservative with its K-12 budget.

Whatever the decision, Meyer said legislators should consider a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

“It feels like we should have a response that is equitable across districts,” he said. “You probably shouldn’t get to go back earlier because you’re richer than the district next to you.”

“This pandemic forces us to abandon any allegiance to the status quo. We simply have to do away with our mental models of the past. Anyone who has not gotten there yet i think will arrive at that point.”

– James Ford, State Board of Education

James Ford is a former state Teacher of the Year who sits on NC’s State Board of Education. He’s also the executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education or CREED, an organization that focuses on closing racial achievement gaps in K-12 schools.

James Ford
CREED Executive Director James Ford

Ford said the school closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic will only exacerbate pre-existing inequities in school performance.

“This pandemic forces us to abandon any allegiance to the status quo,” Ford said. “We simply have to do away with our mental models of the past. Anyone who has not gotten there yet i think will arrive at that point.”

Ford says that means school leaders will have to employ new means of remote learning, applauding teachers’ efforts in many districts to connect and engage with students. 

“But it doesn’t change the fact that for folks who are already on the margins, rural folks, folks of color, whatever educational gaps that existed before will likely be exacerbated,” he said. “There’s no sort of bandage that we can put over the systemic wounds.”

Ford noted that, even if K-12 administrators hand out laptops, in some rural districts students lack broadband Internet access or connectivity.

“I think also we’re going to have to really embrace ‘the whole child model,’ which looks at assessing the social and emotional needs after this, much in the same way we would in a natural disaster, after the hurricane.”

Whenever schools return, teachers will be ready, said Jewell.

“When you talk to our educators out there, they want to be in the classroom with the kids. The goal for everybody is making sure we take care of the social and emotional health of our kids.”