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Hindsight is 2020 on pandemic remote learning, CMS superintendent says as test scores tank

Elementary students in CMS moved in and out of remote learning before returning to classrooms four days a week in March 2021.
Ann Doss Helms
Elementary students in CMS moved in and out of remote learning before returning to classrooms four days a week in March 2021.

During the 2020-2021 pandemic year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools elementary students often saw dramatic drops in proficiency.

The percent of Latino fourth graders proficient in math, for instance, fell by nearly 35 percentage points from 2019 to 2021.

The percent of Black third graders reading on grade level fell by 20. Economically disadvantaged fifth graders fell by 31 percentage points in science.

While almost all North Carolina school districts saw test-score declines during the pandemic, the drops in CMS were often larger than those in neighboring districts.

Most nearby school systems, such as Union, Gaston, Iredell-Statesville and Catawba, brought back elementary students far earlier than CMS. They usually saw much smaller test-score declines.

In an interview with WFAE about how CMS compared with neighboring districts, Superintendent Earnest Winston said he doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

“I would say rather than look back and try to determine if the decisions or this decision or that particular decision was the right decision, I want to spend our energy and our focus to be on where are we today,” Winston said.

“It’s important, I believe, to be reflective,” he said. “But do I look back with regrets? Would that help improve students’ outcomes? I don’t think so. We want to be forward-focused.”

For CMS, looking forward means acknowledging how low proficiency rates are now and setting goals for progress over the next few years. Educators are sizing up individual students’ strengths and setbacks, then tailoring plans to catch them up. District officials are providing support for teachers and students — including the psychological and emotional strains from the pandemic — and recruiting outside groups to help with tutoring, weekend work and summer programs.

Impact of 2020 choices

But decisions made by Winston and the CMS board in summer, fall and winter of last year shaped where students are today.

Board members Carol Sawyer and Margaret Marshall, who supported the slow return to in-person classes, question the validity of comparing CMS students to counterparts in smaller suburban districts — and the value of trying to second-guess decisions made amid the uncertainty of an unfolding pandemic.

Sawyer suggested the more meaningful comparison is with large urban districts, such as Wake and Durham.

Wake and Durham remained virtual for much of the school year, as CMS did. And while Gaston, Cabarrus and Union are much smaller than CMS, they are some of the largest districts in the state.

Marshall noted that nearby districts have lower poverty levels and fewer students who are not proficient in English than CMS does.

“I imagine data scientists and others will be digging into this for years to come,” Marshall said in an email. “Whatever the case, we have much work to do both academically and emotionally as a community and a state to do with our students.”

Making valid comparisons

But for the last 20 years, the federal and state governments have used test scores broken down by race, poverty and English-language status to provide the fairest possible comparison of how schools and districts perform. And by those measures, CMS students got less last year than counterparts across county lines.

Marty West
Elio Pajares Ruiz
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Marty West

Professor Marty West is with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He led a review of more than 300 studies of the impact of COVID-19 on schools for the Center on Reinventing Public Education. He said large districts like CMS had some logistical challenges in returning to in-person instruction.

But he said it’s valid to compare, say, Latino students in a smaller, suburban district to Latino students in an urban district.

“Looking back, we can still make the comparisons between the changes in achievement that we see across those two settings and use that to inform what needs to happen next,” he said.

Lives on the line

Winston, Sawyer and CMS board Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey also note that last year’s decisions were made at a time when less was known about COVID-19. People were dying, vaccines were unavailable and the board faced a barrage of changing and sometimes contradictory guidance from federal, state and local health officials.

Byers-Bailey says she still believes the cautious approach was best, given the circumstances at the time. “With the rates that high, with the infection in the city, there was no way we were going to be able to keep the schools open without having kids falling here, there and everywhere," she said, "and with the possibility that some of those children were going to die.”

And Sawyer says she believes that “if we had pushed hard on going back full-bore early on that we would have lost a whole lot of teachers.” She says that includes some who would have resigned to protect themselves and others who’d have died from COVID-19.

Board Chair Elyse Dashew said she spoke with Sawyer, Byers-Bailey and Marshall and “they’ve covered what I would say.” Board members Lenora Shipp, Rhonda Cheek and Ruby Jones and Jennifer De La Jara didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Schools were relatively safe

Board member Sean Strain, who wanted to bring students back to the classroom as soon as possible, argued that it became clear early in the last school year that kids were much safer in schools than in their communities.

Research supports that position.

Duke University researcher Danny Benjamin said the risks of in-person school turned out to be “extremely limited.”

He was part of a Duke University team that studied COVID-19 transmission in 11 North Carolina school districts that had in-person instruction at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

Benjamin said that by the summer of 2020, school districts had enough information from other countries and other places like health care settings to show that schools could be held in person safely, with masks.

“I think people really lit their hair on fire in 2020,” Benjamin said. “To say ‘Oh my gosh, it won’t be safe.’ And that narrative came through until ultimately we published in January.”

Benjamin said he understands why more cautious school districts opened with virtual instruction in August 2020. But he said they should have looked at the experience of districts that opened their classrooms — and then quickly moved to in-person instruction.

“I think the rural school districts really got it right,” Benjamin said.

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Did communities benefit?

As of November 2021, 14.3% of Mecklenburg County’s population had tested positive for COVID-19. In Iredell County, it’s higher, at 15.8%. Iredell-Statesville Schools brought kids back much faster than CMS, and saw much smaller academic losses. Iredell-Statesville brought elementary students back five days a week starting in October, while CMS elementary students didn't start their "Plan A" schedule, which was four days a week, until late March.

That poses the question: Is the slightly higher infection rate in Iredell County due to in-person school in the 2020-2021 year? Or to other factors like less mask-wearing or a willingness of people in Iredell to socialize more?

The Duke study says it’s likely other factors.

The journal Nature Medicine published a study in October that looked at COVID spread in areas with fully remote, hybrid and in-person schools.

The study said: “SARS-CoV-2 incidence rates were not statistically different in counties with in-person learning versus remote school modes in most regions of the United States.”

It noted, however, there was a difference in the South, possibly due to less mask-wearing in schools.

Mecklenburg County has a lower death rate from COVID-19 than Iredell and the neighboring counties. But that statistic may be misleading.

A look at the increase in total deaths — known as excess mortality — is believed to be the best way to judge the impact of the pandemic. It captures not only confirmed cases of COVID-19, but also undiagnosed COVID deaths, as well as drug overdoses, suicides and other deaths that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

When you look at the overall increase in mortality from 2019 to 2020, Mecklenburg County was higher than most neighboring counties.

Mecklenburg and Iredell had the same increase in total deaths (14.8%) when comparing 2020 to 2019.

Cabarrus had 12.6% more deaths than in 2019. Gaston was at 10% and Union was 5.6%.

Politics playing a role

West, the Harvard professor who reviewed studies of COVID-19 policies and learning loss, said there are similar trends across the nation: Urban districts — which often relied on virtual learning — had larger declines in test scores than rural and suburban ones.

“I think what you can say is that when we look at the decisions that different school districts made across the country, what’s most striking to me is that those differences were not driven by differences in the prevalence of COVID-19,” West said.

“The clearest pattern is counties that are more Republican-leaning tended to return to in-person instruction much sooner than did Democratic-leaning counties,” he said.

That was true in the Charlotte area. CMS and Anson — which also had mostly virtual instruction — are in Democratic counties, while the districts that opened are Republican strongholds.

Of the 47 elected officials in Mecklenburg County who represent the city of Charlotte, the CMS Board, the Board of County Commission and the legislative delegation, there are five registered Republicans.

West added: “We also see that larger districts were more likely to stay remote, and if you look closely at the decision-making process in those districts you see that resistance from teacher unions to a return to in-person instruction played a big role.”

Said James, the Iredell-Statesville superintendent: “I think politics has something to do with the way your district is run. And we definitely lean to the right, Republican.”

And through the opening debate in CMS, the loudest voices wanting children to return to in-person education were white parents. Many were from south Charlotte, where Republicans are the strongest.

Nick Foy, his wife and three other parents sued the district in September 2020 in an attempt to force CMS to have in-person education. Their request for an injunction wasn’t granted, and their suit was dismissed in March as CMS was bringing students back.

Foy said he understands why district officials don’t want to look closely at the test scores from the pandemic. But he said it’s essential to do so.

“In my mind, if we can’t trust them to make that decision, what decisions are going to be coming in the future that we’ve put in their hands that they don’t have the wisdom to be able to navigate appropriately,” Foy said.

The CMS board is now working on goals to hold themselves and Winston accountable for making sure students regain lost ground. Earlier this month, they acknowledged their pre-pandemic goals have to be scaled back to account for the setbacks but they bogged down on deciding how much progress is achievable. They’ll come back to that Nov. 30.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.