The year in review: Some of the top stories from a tumultuous time in public education

By: - December 29, 2020 6:00 am

The pandemic only added to the enormous challenges confronting NC public schools

It’s been called a year like no other. 

And 2020 has been that, especially for teachers and parents struggling to educate school children during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people across the United States.  

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order closing public schools to in-person instruction on March 14, approximately two weeks after the first infection of the deadly virus was reported in North Carolina. The move forced parents to become teacher assistants to help student with remote instruction. Meanwhile, teachers had to learn to teach remotely, sometimes to students young as five years old. 

The pandemic has laid bare the inequities that exist between poor and mostly rural students and their better-heeled urban counterparts. 

Chief among the disparities is the lack of access to broadband in some of the state’s more rural locations. Tens of thousands of North Carolina students lack the broadband needed to learn remotely. 

The N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office estimates that 261,000 households in the state don’t have any access to broadband and that 1.6 million families cannot sign up for service or simply can’t afford it. 

Food insecurity also become more prevalent, exposing a huge economic divide between wealthier North Carolinians and those struggling to make ends meet, often earning less than the $15-anhour needed to pay for adequate shelter and other necessities. 

After schools closed to in-person instruction, districts across the state mobilized to feed hundreds of thousands of students who rely on school lunch as a primary meal. 

School psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors and nurses told Policy Watch in May that they worried students would return to schools traumatized by the pandemic. They also worried that cases of child abuse would go undetected while students learn from home. 

“We expect that when school starts back, we will have an influx of abuse and neglect cases,” Pachovia Lovett, a state social work consultant who works for the NC Department of Public Instruction, said in May. We’re prepared for that and making sure we have some good screeners in place for students to feel safe and be with safe trusted adults when they get back on campus.” 

A defiant foe 

Few people thought in March that the nation would be battling the coronavirus nine months later 

But the virus has been a defiant foe. 

December was an especially troubling month for infections. The state consistently broke records for infections and hospitalizations. As the calendar turned to the last week of December, more than 6,200 people had died in North Carolina after contracting the coronavirus. Several school districts, including Wake County Public School System, the state’s largest, decided to offer remote-only learning for several weeks following the Christmas Holiday to slow the spread of the virus. North Carolina and many other states saw spikes in infections after the Thanksgiving Holiday. 

Private and religious schools reported some of the state’s largest coronavirus clusters after many of them opened to in-person instruction in August. The schools are not subject to the same state health rules that K-12 public schools must follow to hold in-person classes. 

As coronavirus infections soared in December, so did hope. The FDA approved two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use that is expected to quicken the nation’s return to normalcy. Educators hope the vaccines will allow more schools to reopen to in-person instruction, if not this spring, then certainly in the fall. 

COVID-19 dominate headlines, but … 

While COVID-19‘s crippling impact on public education dominated the headlines, school finances, the expansion of charter schools and a new state superintendent also gave educators and parents plenty to talk about in 2020. 

North Carolina will begin 2021 with a new State Superintendent of Public InstructionRepublican Catherine Truitt defeated Democrat Jen Mangrum in the Nov. 3 General Election. Truitt replaces Mark Johnson, also a Republican, who had a contentious four-year relationship with the State Board of Education. 

Truitt said that she will work to forge a more collegial relationship with the state board. Even before taking office, she sided with the state board in its decision to require in-person testing for End-of-Grade tests. 

Parents and teachers largely opposed requiring the inperson tests. Johnson opposed them too, ending his tenure the same way it started – at odds with the state board. 

Johnson took office in January 2017 and immediately found himself quarreling with the state board over the powers of the superintendent. The disagreement ended with the state Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which reassigned the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers that had been held by the state board to Johnson. 

Charter schools and local district finances 

Policy Watch reported on the near financial collapse of Wayne County Schools after the superintendent resigned amid a damning financial audit that turned up a $5 million deficit. The district was left without the resources and leadership needed to face the many challenges presented by the pandemic.  

Granville County Schools also faced financial challenges and enrollment loses brought on by the continued growth of charter schools in the region. 

One former school board member described the district as being in a death spiral. “We have three competing interests that are not complementary,” Rivers told Policy Watch. “We have a financial crisis that’s due to the fact that we’ve lost so many children to charter schools; and we’ve lost so many children to charter schools because our academic performance has been steadily declining.” 

The number of charter schools in North Carolina has grown to 200 since the Republican-led General Assembly lifted the state’s 100-school cap in 2011. More traditional public schools, particularly those in rural parts of the state, will likely feel the financial pressure and experience enrollment losses as the state’s pool of charters grow. 

Last year, Policy Watch  found that some new charter schools such as Essie Mae Kiser Foxx in Rowan County struggled to stay open due to its relationship with a management firm that did not live up to its promises 

The decision by Essie Mae’s leadership to go it alone hasn’t panned out. In November, the Charter School Advisory Board asked the state board to revoke Essie Mae’s charter because it failed to produce required audits for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.  

“This is never a decision and recommendation that we take lightly, but we feel that Essie Mae Kiser Foxx has essentially violated one of the core requirements of operating a charter school,” CSAB chairman Alex Quigley said, referring to the missing audits. 

Tina Wallace, chairwoman of the school’s board, pledged to challenge the revocation. 

In the New Year, Policy Watch will continue to monitor on the state’s growing charter school movement and the impact it has on traditional public schools. Meanwhile, district and school leaders are busy planning a return to school buildings full-time, assessing students’ learning loss, and developing ways to offset the educational damage caused by the coronavirus. 

It has indeed been a year like no other. 

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.