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Pandemic's effects may have lasting impact on education
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Year in Review

Pandemic's effects may have lasting impact on education

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As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the education field may never look the way it did before March 2020.

“Every piece of their life was being turned upside down – no sports, no prom, no in-person classes,” said Cynthia Honeycutt, an independent educational consultant with the Hickory-based organization BrainWorks Learning Center. “Still, they are creative and they go with the flow and stay inspired.”

2019-20 school year timeline

Beginning on March 13, the last day in-person classes were held for the 2019-20 school year, the academic landscape underwent changes that could potentially have lasting impacts on future generations of students.

On March 16, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered a mandate to close all public schools through at least May 15.

For many students and families, it felt as if the school year had come to a grinding halt.

During that time, many Burke County Public Schools students who lacked reliable access to internet were unable to perform their remote schoolwork.

“It’s hard to capture (the fluidity of) our lives right now unless we had a GoPro with us to record the events that are going on,” BCPS Superintendent Larry Putnam said during a separate special-called meeting on March 27. “Things are moving so fast, but I just want to talk about the resilience of our employees.”

During that meeting, Putnam revealed to the board the North Carolina State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction’s plans to institute a pass-fail scenario for high school students.

Those guidelines were as follows:

  • Students received a Pass or Withdrawal for spring courses based on their learning as of March 13, the last day that in-session classes were held.
  • If a student had an F as of March 13, the district or school provided opportunities for the student to improve the mark to a passing grade.

The state board also approved a one-year waiver from the U.S Department of Education of federal student assessment and accountability requirements for the 2019-20 school year.

Pandemic highlights inequities among students

Following Cooper’s mandate, Burke County Public Schools remained in remote learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

However, the absence of in-person learning left many students without adequate resources to perform their schoolwork.

In late March, Cheryl Shuffler, Burke County Public Schools public relations officer, spoke to The News Herald about the alarming number of students without access to internet during the fully remote learning period to close the 2019-20 schoolyear.

“We estimate that 30% (roughly 3,750) of our 12,500 students do not have broadband (internet access,)” Shuffler said.

In an effort to provide access for families without internet connectivity in their homes, the school system encouraged these families to log on to the internet from any of the system’s school parking lots or country public library parking lots.

Still, with many parents forced to work odd hours in order to keep food on the table, some children were still left behind.

To combat these inequities, the school system worked with local organizations to ensure each student received a laptop device for the 2020-21 school year.

According to Shuffler, the school system ordered WiFi hot spots to be loaned out to students to help them connect to the internet. Though the price of the laptops were $25 for one, $35 for two and $50 for three or more device, BCPS worked with families who could not afford to pay the device fee, according to Melanie Honeycutt, the system’s director of digital teaching and learning.

Impact for college applicants

Due to the challenges presented by the pandemic, many colleges decided to waive testing requirements for 2021 freshmen, including both the ACT and the SAT. The University of North Carolina System made the move to waive testing requirements for students applying for the spring, summer and fall 2021 semesters.

Cynthia Honeycutt has worked as an independent educational consultant based out of Hickory for more than 15 years. Honeycutt said she feels the pandemic has only brought more attention to the disparities in access that have existed for years.

“For decades, there has been conversation about test scores favoring certain segments of the population or having an implied bias,” Honeycutt said earlier this month. “That’s always been a concern.”

In May, the University of California System announced it will waive the SAT/ACT requirement for five years and it will develop its own test “that more closely aligns with what (the System) expects incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC,” said system President Janet Napolitano, according to CNN.

Despite the waiver requirement though, college enrollment nationwide saw a dip in numbers for the fall 2020 semester.

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According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment was down more than 16% from 2019. Overall, undergraduate enrollment was down 4% compared to August 2019. Furthermore, the rate of first-time students at community colleges nationwide dipped by nearly 23%, the center said.

This trend played out locally, too.

According to Susan Berley, Western Piedmont Community College’s vice president for student success and support services, the number of students enrolled in classes for the fall 2020 semester decreased by 8.8% from fall 2019.

Many academic professionals predict that the drop in enrollment is due to an abundance of caution taken by students to avoid being on unsafe campuses. The expanded duties students were saddled with at their homes, such as caring for children or taking care of vulnerable family members also could have factored into their decisions to forgo their college enrollment.

Rollercoaster of 2020-21 school year

Exactly one month before the scheduled start to the 2020-21 school year, the Burke County Board of Education held an emergency meeting on July 17 in which it voted to send children to in-person school two days a week when school was set to begin on Aug. 17.

However, the board called an emergency meeting only 10 days later on July 27 and reversed its course, voting to instead start the school year remotely. The decision was made before it was revealed the board used faulty data received from the county health department. According to board chair Buddy Armour, Burke County Health Director Rebecca McLeod instructed the board not to rely on the information because of uncertainty regarding a potential miscalculation of COVID-19 data countywide.

Then, on Sept. 3, the board voted to reinstate Plan B, where students are in school two days per week. A spike in COVID-19 cases beginning in early November and lasting through the end of the first semester left the fate of the second semester in limbo.

In the face of the continued rise in cases throughout the county, on Dec. 14, the board voted to start the second semester remotely through at least Jan. 25.

Remote learning: here to stay?

A significant subset of BCPS students managed to avoid the back and forth of hybrid learning and fully remote, as they were engaged in fully remote learning from the first day of the school year.

The Burke County Virtual Academy comprised nearly 19% of the school system’s population, with 2,237 students enrolled for the first semester, according to Christie Abernathy, the academy’s director.

The academy uses the “core four” of English/language arts, math, science and social studies, along with some electives. Instruction is carried out through a blended model of asynchronous learning – such as a prerecorded video from a teacher or an individual assignment, and synchronous learning – such as a live session meeting through Zoom.

In a Dec. 7 school board meeting, the academy’s coordinator and principal Kristin Edwards said 2,216 students were enrolled for the upcoming semester.

The future

When the Burke County Board of Education met for a special-called meeting on March 27, the future was murky. Only weeks before, some national leaders were calling for a “return to normal” by as soon as the Easter holiday.

The school system’s administration maintained a message of ensuring the health and safety of students and staff.

“The spirit of this process is to provide a level of support for our students and families during this time with a primary focus being on their health and safety,” Putnam said in the meeting. “This has been my message from the start and will continue to be my message until we get through this process.”

Now, more than nine months later, local schools still find themselves in the midst of the process of trying to navigate the pandemic and ensure students are learning, while making sure staff members and students stay safe and healthy too.

In looking back and assessing the whirlwind year that was 2020, for some academic professionals there is reason to be optimistic that the barriers students face, which were only further exposed by the pandemic, will be forced to be reckoned with in the near future.

Many parents have wondered whether the students’ lack of instructions, particularly at the K-5 level, might be causing permanent damage to their academic development.

During the Dec. 7 board meeting, Karen Auton, BCPS director of elementary education, shared K-5 reading and math levels with the board.

Auton revealed that through Nov. 29, 52% of students were working below grade level material in reading, according to metrics for the research-based program Lexia.

The school system uses a supplemental research-based program called Dreambox for assessing students’ proficiency in math. Auton said through November, the percentage of K-5 students on track to meet grade level procifiency was 45.7%, while the percentage of those considered to be potentially on track was 21%. Another nearly 21% of students were not predicted to meet grade level proficiency.

Still, other educational professionals are taking a more optimistic outlook.

Chris Cerf started his career as a high school teacher, served as the New Jersey education commissioner, deputy chancellor for New York City’s Department of Education, and is a founder of a nonprofit called Cadence Learning.

“I absolutely believe that we are going to come out of this pandemic having learned a great deal about how to deliver quality instruction to students,” Cerf told The New York Times.

Just as local students will have to wait to see when they will return to in-person learning, people invested in the education of children will also be forced to play waiting game.

Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at jcasey@morganton.com or 828-432-8907. 

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Johnny Casey has been covering education and writing feature stories for The News Herald since Aug. 2019

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