Special to Iredell Free News
RALEIGH — When schools across North Carolina sent children home a year ago Sunday due to COVID-19, educators were uncertain what lay ahead. They had no roadmap, no past experience and no preparation for a pandemic. But within days, they began finding new, if unfamiliar, ways to help students they could no longer see in person. They improvised by creating new methods for teaching and engaging students. Support staff hustled to organize meals and delivery strategies to keep students fed. School leaders went to extraordinary lengths so that students could continue learning and growing.
Now, one year later, after many thousands of students statewide have participated in prolonged remote learning via computer, most schools have reopened for in-person instruction, all with mask requirements and many with students attending on alternating days or weeks.
State education leaders are marking this historic anniversary not only to recognize the resilience and resourcefulness of educators, support staff, parents and students, but also to make a vow to focus on recovering from any losses and to turn those losses into long-term gains for public education in North Carolina.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said the state must think beyond the “here and now” of addressing the countless challenges precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and leverage a “confluence of events” that includes both political support and generous federal relief funding for schools nationwide.
“The department recognizes the detrimental effects of COVID, and we are committed to addressing its challenges head on,” Truitt said. “But we also recognize that we cannot solely focus on COVID at the expense of executing a long-term, pro-active and forward-thinking vision. If we are going to transform public education in our state, we have to do both of these together.
“So, we are charting a path forward – one that allows us to respond to the challenges of COVID, including learning loss – while planning continues to solve for the challenges that have plagued our schools for decades – such as literacy, testing pressures and inequities in human capital.”
Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he believes the consequences of the pandemic crisis could ultimately help the state meet its constitutional mandate to provide all students with a sound, basic education and address chronic inequities.
“As we manage our COVID-recovery response, we must be deliberate, intentional and strategic to turn every challenge into an opportunity to continue to improve our students’ educational experiences,” Davis said. “Working with the state superintendent, DPI staff, local superintendents, administrators and educators across our state, we will continue to develop a comprehensive plan to address the many needs of our education system that’s required in the post-COVID period. This is too significant an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.”
Yet even as education leaders said they were focused on the future, they also said the anniversary of the initial statewide school closure on March 14, 2020, is prompting them to reflect on a year when educators, students and parents faced extraordinary hardship and challenges over which they had little or no control.
“If ever the public took for granted the role that public schools play in the lives of so many people, the last year has underscored their value many times over,” Truitt said. “Ask any parent who found themselves suddenly thrust into the role of part-time teacher while juggling their full-time, work-from-home job.”
Schools, and the teachers, administrators and support staff who serve in them had to innovate and invent new approaches, not just for teaching and learning from a safe distance, but also to provide meals, computers to students who needed them, internet access to connect them, mental health support for students feeling the strain of isolation and countless other improvised strategies to fill yawning gaps for students and their families.
For example, during the first 90 days of school closures last spring, school nutrition staff in districts across the state served an average of 500,000 meals a day, from bus stops, pick-up locations and other safe delivery methods. In all, 2,200 school buses were converted to food trucks during the height of the pandemic.
The State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction provided rapidly developed guidance in the spring to help districts and schools navigate suddenly critical issues such as grading and attendance as schools struggled to adjust to remote instruction. Then, when it was clear that schools would need to reopen in the fall at only partial capacity, if at all, DPI developed within weeks a detailed guidebook, Lighting Our Way Forward, to support districts and schools in planning for the 2020-21 school year on all aspects of schooling – from student health and safety to student learning to transportation and athletics.
Teachers rewrote lesson plans and adjusted their pedagogy to adapt to Google Classroom or other online platforms. Principals in schools that could safely reopen calculated how many students could be accommodated in classrooms with six feet of social distance.
UNC-TV collaborated with the Department of Public Instruction and the Friday Institute at N.C. State University to create educational programming last spring, then expanded this at-home learning initiative effort this year with a new broadcast learning series to deliver engaging math and literacy lessons with North Carolina teachers, aimed at Pre-K through third-grade students.
Davis said those examples of hard work and dedication are a source of pride and inspiration for all North Carolinians.
“We want to thank every teacher, staff member, principal and everyone who has and continues to support our students and their families,” he said. “You are our lighthouse heroes – before, during and after COVID-19. We celebrate your positive spirit to turn COVID-19 into the many opportunities to address opportunity gaps in our educational system. We appreciate your tireless response to answer the call to action to address these challenges.”
Truitt said the best way to honor the tireless contributions of educators across the state during the last year – and provide all students with the education they deserve – is to provide the leadership needed to recover, close gaps and ensure that every student has a highly-qualified, excellent teacher in every classroom.
“We’re developing a plan for a path forward that will guide our work over the next four years,” Truitt said. “It’s how we will improve our state’s public schools, expand innovation and create new opportunities for students to learn, grow, and succeed after graduation.”