School Closures Were A Mistake

By John Hood

RALEIGH — Closing down school buildings for many months last year — and offering poorly planned and executed virtual schooling as an inadequate substitute — proved to be a disaster for North Carolina children, families, and the education system itself.

We can say this now with great confidence. When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck North Carolina in March 2020, no such confidence was possible. Although I disagreed with the decision at the time, I understood why officials closed public schools for the final three months of the 2019-20 academic year.

Failing to reopen them fully for 2020-21 was, however, indefensible. By then the risk profile of the pandemic was better known. Older North Carolinians, particularly those over 65 or with preexisting co-morbidities such as obesity, were at significant risk of hospitalization or death. Children weren’t, and still aren’t.

How much damage did school closures do? Let us count the ways.

Nearly a third of North Carolina third-graders failed the grade. Their reading scores, even after intensive reading camps and retests this summer, were too low to permit them to advance normally to the next grade. Some are now repeating third grade. Others were placed in special classes in an attempt to accelerate them into fourth-grade proficiency by next spring.

The academic wreckage extends far beyond third grade, which just happens to be a focal grade for our accountability system. Just 39% of first-graders scored at grade level in reading. For the K-12 population as a whole, only 45% of our public-school students passed their state exams this year.

We can all hope that, through strategic investments and heroic efforts, many of these young North Carolinians will recoup the learning they lost during the shutdowns. But we shouldn’t have to hope for the best. We should have been spared the worst. Schoolchildren were neither significantly at risk from COVID nor a significant vector of transmission for COVID. By the fall of last year, policymakers should have known that.

The downsides weren’t limited to learning loss. Even for those students who did okay (or in a few cases better than okay) in virtual learning last year, their absence from school imposed massive burdens on North Carolina families. Some parents were compelled to cut back on their work hours or leave their jobs altogether, reducing household incomes and adding more stress to their already stressful experience with the pandemic. Alas, the pot sometimes boiled over, leading to tragic cases of neglect, substance abuse, or domestic violence.

And for public education itself, school closures have produced a crisis of public confidence. While some officials and educators voiced their support for struggling families and called for a rapid return to in-person schooling, many others didn’t. Some were condescending and obnoxious in their dismissal of parental complaints and insisted nonsensically on working from home until the “end” of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, the share of North Carolina children enrolled in public schools dropped precipitously last year. Moreover, the share of North Carolina parents posing tough questions to education officials and school boards skyrocketed.

Parents aren’t just upset about last year’s school closures, or about mask mandates they deem unnecessary. Many of these parents are upset by what they learned from direct observation of the lessons, textbooks, and assignments their children received while “learning” from home. If anyone think these parents will be silenced by bureaucratic bluster — or attempts to concoct a national specter of “domestic terrorism” from a few outrageous incidences of threats to school officials — they are misreading the room.

Again, I don’t really blame North Carolina leaders for mistakes they may have made during the initial few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. My own views evolved during the spring and summer of 2020 as I consumed more information and listened to more briefings. But by the start of the 2020-21 school year, it was time to pivot to a different approach for schools. It didn’t happen. We’ll all be paying the price for many years to come.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).

12 COMMENTS

  1. That is what happens when you put folks who could not figure out a profession and ended up being educators because it made college easy in charge. They do the job so they can get off work at 2:30 or 3 and have summers off. I think it is also so they can dress like homeless folks at work. Business people should run the school system. And dont even get me started on the school board. Awful, just awfu.

    • I would have thought that since you taught yourself everything your grammar and spelling would be perfect. You also taught yourself to proofread before you hit send, right? I’ve corrected your comment for you.

      “This is what happens when you put folks in charge who could not figure out a profression and ended up being educators because it is easy. They do the job so they can get off work at 2:30 or 3 and have summers off. I think it is also so they can like homeless folks at work. Business people should run the school system. Don’t get me started on teh school board. Awful, just awful.”

      Teachers get paid for 8 hours a day, but we’re in the building longer than that on most days. We don’t get paid for anything after school, so I volunteer my time for meetings, game duty, open houses, etc. If I plan or grade on the weekend, I don’t get compensated for that either. In the business, you can get rewarded with raises and promotions for putting in extra work. That’s not the case in education. On top of that we don’t get paid during the summer. We are ten month employees. Maybe we wouldn’t have to dress like the homeless if we were compensated better for all the time and energy we expend educating your children.

      Teachers Everywhere

      • Welcome to the real world. Well, except for when you folks would’nt go back to school last year and students suffered. Listen, all I hear from teachers is that they arent paid enough. Duh, did you not know how much a teacher made when you signed up. Paid babysitters.

        • So brave of you to attack teachers from behind a keyboard. I bet the internet trolls are already erecting a statue of you somewhere so the world knows how courageous and tough you are. DId a teacher correct you at some point without realizing you were born perfect? I don’t agree with Jen R on anything, but read her comment below because it’s pretty accurate.

          Oh, and good job on improving your writing. Did you take the time to proofread this time?

    • Rocky Mount,

      That was the poorest argument I’ve read about why people become teachers.

      And you make absolutely no argument with no evidence that supports my business people should run the education system.

      I’m not impressed.

  2. I’m not quite sure how this becomes the teachers fault when they were not able to prepare for the pandemic, were given 2 days to figure out technology, how to remotely teach young kids with no attention span while keeping them engaged, And had no support from the school board. Most teachers were just trying to survive and get through the year. The next school year was better but again lack of technology by the families, lack of participation and prioritization by families and the continued struggle of engaging kids to learn virtually is very difficult. The teachers did the best they could with the resources they had. The onus for this falls on our school boards and government officials who should have allowed kids to be in school in person!

  3. Rocky Mount, how arrogant of you of all people to insult the entire teaching profession. From your post everyone can tell you are just another ignorant and uniformed armchair quarterback who thinks they understand something from a little anecdotal evidence from their small lives. You have no clue.

  4. Rocky Mount, I wish we were paid like babysitters. We wouldn’t complain about the pay. I believe most daycares charge at least 150 per week/per child. I would be thrilled with that kind of pay:) Also, there are many teachers that came back to work. I am one of them and I do agree we should have all come back. It put a lot of extra responsibility on those of us who came in the building everyday!

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