How will our schools recover from COVID-19?

   This week marked my three children’s official foray into distance education.  Wake County Public Schools’ remote learning plan came to fruition on April 13 as 162,000 kids “returned” to school.  Most students used their own devices to begin phase 2 of WCPSS’s remote leaning plan. However, Wake County School Board Chair, Keith Sutton, told me today that the county continues to distribute 28,000 devices to students in need as well as provide mobile hotspots to 10,000 households without Internet access at home.

            Wake County, the richest county in North Carolina, has a median income of $77,000.  Yet 17% of its students under 18 do not have what they need at home to be successful during this crisis or when school reopens. 

So what about other counties?  Greene County, for example, has a median income of $36,989—considerably less than Wake County.  How will their students be successful?

            As it turns out, rural Greene County has one of the oldest digital learning initiatives in the state.  Under the leadership of Dr. Patrick Miller, students in grades 6-12 have been supplied a device by the school district since 2003.  The teachers and staff throughout the district have made an easy transition to remote learning thanks to innovative leadership, and most students are the beneficiaries of this work.  Most.

             Sadly, according the NC Department of Public Instruction, North Carolina has 218,000 households with no access to broadband because there are no providers in these areas.  This amounts to 292,000 children without an active Internet subscription.  Add access to the unending list of other challenges many of our students and their families have—unemployment, food insecurity, lack of support—and it becomes clear that the achievement gap is going to be wider than ever. 

This means that the problems we had before COVID-19 will be waiting for us in spades when students return to school. 

            There is no shortage of suggestions as to how to solve the challenge brought about by the considerable loss of instruction time: summer school, virtual 1:1 remote mentoring, repeating a grade, repeating a half grade (students in 3rd grade move up to grade 3.5) and the list goes on. Some are feasible, and some simply are not.  

            The time will come soon when innovation in education will have its day. I have my own ideas about what should be prioritized and hope that voters decide to give me a chance to implement them.

 First and foremost, our state leaders must work with Internet providers to offer connectivity in all parts of the state—an initiative that is well underway—such that broadband is available for purchase regardless of location and affordable for all NC families.

Until then, in both the short term and in the long term, we must ensure that our local school leaders have the resources and flexibility they need to create their own learning recovery plan.  They are best poised to formulate a plan that makes sense for their students, thereby increasing its chances of working.  Each of NC’s 115 school systems was in a different oplace when we entered this pandemic.  They will each be in a different place coming out of it. Let’s support local leaders, principals and teachers as they “restart” their schools. Then we can let the real innovation begin.