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OPINION

Keep the kids in class

Posted on January 20, 2022

Updated on January 22, 2022

OpinionColumnsCOVID-19

Tom Campbell

Tom Campbell

Omicron is spreading faster than kudzu, especially among our children. Some educators and health officials are suggesting we halt in-class learning and return to virtual learning. That would be a disaster.

It’s indisputable that omicron is spreading rapidly in our schools, but data suggests it doesn’t last long and isn’t as severe as the delta variant. The threats of illness are not as great as other damages to our children.

Consider this: Between March 2020 and the same month in ’21 when schools were closed and we depended on virtual learning, the average school-age student lost 55 instruction days, almost one-third of a school year. Test results quantify the damage.

Only 45% passed state exams compared to almost 60% in 2019, the year before COVID. Fifty-three percent of students in third through eighth grades were graded “not proficient” in grade-level reading skills. The 2019 end-of-grade tests revealed more than 50% failed Math 1, Math 3, biology and/or English exams, and 1 in 6 students weren’t promoted from the pivotal ninth grade, a predictor of future high school graduation success rates.

Our children essentially lost a year of their education.

It wasn’t just in learning that students suffered. The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics compiled studies from across the globe and found clinically elevated depression in 25% of children and anxiety in 20%. Child suicides hit new peaks.

Children knew they weren’t keeping up or getting the help they needed. They heard the angst and concern from parents worried about jobs, bills and food; anxiety often played out in tension and screaming at home. Children, who heard the horror stories, were frightened of getting the virus and knew their lives had changed. Many doubted they would ever return to the way things were. They missed their friends and classmates and their personal freedoms. All of this resulted in children feeling frightened and lonely.

The best way to minimize the scariness and uncertainty is to restore their lives to as normal a routine as possible, particularly the return to in-person learning. We need to understand there’s much to be done and it is going to cost our personal involvement and money — lots of it.

Safety must be a high priority, including both physical safety from the disease as well as safety from physical danger. We must thoroughly and frequently sanitize our schools every day. To control virus spread, we need to return to spacing desks as far as possible and require that all wear masks.

It’s time to put your political preferences aside and do what is best for the most. Off-duty officers are going to be extremely necessary to restore confidence and keep order.

As was always the case, teachers are the fulcrum to in-class success. Too many teachers are leaving due to burnout or fear for their own or their family’s health, as well as outrageous behavior. We must provide a great deal more support in the classroom, including a large cadre of substitutes, teaching assistants, mentors or volunteers to backstop instruction, provide remediation and coaching or just give the classroom teacher a break.

Administrators get no pass for not ensuring their schools have enough bus drivers, cleaning and janitorial help, food service workers or counselors and medical assistance. Help can come from other educators, the business sector, elected officials, concerned citizens — even administrators themselves.

And parents can be of great assistance. This will include spending time with their students, listening to them read, looking at papers returned to them, asking questions to hear how their student is doing. They need to frequently communicate with educators, supporting them as they support our children. 

In summary, North Carolina needs to come together like never before.

Yes, there costs, risks and sacrifices to be made, but ask yourself: What is the cost for an improperly educated generation of children? What if they drop out, unprepared to graduate or get additional education they will need to thrive? Our society will pay to support them, feed them, counsel them and perhaps even police them. Our state will be unattractive to employers, who might move elsewhere because they can’t find the workforce they require. 

This isn’t a Chicken Little sky-is-falling preposterous scenario. Failure cannot be an option.

We will prove how much we care about the next generation and each other by how dedicated we are in helping them succeed. It all begins with a steadfast commitment to keep kids in class.

Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Email him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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