BY JEFF JAMES

Like many of you, my prayer was that COVID-19 would run its course by now, and we could return to some form of normalcy in our daily lives. While one size certainly does not fit all, virtual learning is not for every child. Even our students who do well with virtual learning have expressed the need to return to school. They miss their friends. They miss the social-emotional learning that happens naturally in a school building.

The Iredell-Statesville Board of Education and I still get the occasional email imploring us to return full time. If it were up to us, we would do that. Of course, we would also leave the virtual option in place for those still that prefer virtual learning. In addition to our students, we have staff that we must also be concerned about, especially the ones in high-risk categories or with family members that are high risk.

So we forge ahead trying to accommodate the needs as best possible. We do know from the numbers that the virtual option is not always working for students. “Ghosting” is a new word that has been added to our vocabulary in 2020-2021. Ghosting is when a student has logged into a class via Zoom, but remains passive, silent, and turns off the video feature on their laptop. Essentially, a student can log in,
“ghost” a class, and never really pay attention or learn any new content. Ghosting simply means many of our virtual students are not showing up to class. It is the modern-day equivalent to “sleeping through class” or “skipping.” In short, some of the students aren’t learning what they need to learn.

Every day of virtual learning puts some students at a further disadvantage. In addition to the downfalls of virtual learning as it relates to unmotivated students, the current situation also impacts profitability in Child Nutrition and Prime Time. This, in turn, creates the need to supplement the losses with local tax dollars.

I-SS is part of the “ABC Science Collaborative,” a national and international think tank of doctors, educators, the CDC, and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The constant data updates from this organization have led us to be a leader in returning K-5 students to in-person instruction. We still are under executive orders that prevent this for grades 6-12.

In any given year, students suffer from what we call the “summer slide” in the eight to 10 weeks that comprise our summer break. Any educator knows that the first few weeks of every school year includes getting students back into the habit of waking up early for school and reviewing things they were learning back in the spring.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left us wondering how we can ever catch these students up. Unfortunately, many will not and I am afraid our dropout rates will once again rise.

The glimmer of good news for many is the opportunity to receive the vaccine. Currently, we are operating under Phase 1B – Group 1 of the state’s vaccination plan. Anyone who is 75 or older is eligible to receive the vaccine. The Iredell Health Department is working around the clock to systematically distribute the vaccine across Iredell County. If you are interested in receiving the vaccine, visit www.YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov to learn more.

I’m hopeful that, toward the end of this month, we will move into Phase 1B – Group 2. This will allow our educators to begin to receive the vaccination if they so choose. As we head into spring, the number of individuals who have been vaccinated will continue to rise, and hopefully the number of individuals with COVID-19 in Iredell County will begin to decrease.

Then we will be able to talk about fully returning to normal schooling for our children.

One thing is for certain, our children NEED to be in school. They need to be on campus to learn, to socialize, and to thrive. Any educator will tell you that empty school hallways are lonely. We can’t wait to get back to bustling campuses, afterschool activities and celebrations, and the sound of voices buzzing in EVERY classroom.

Dr. Jeff James is the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools. 

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