“It’s Friday the 13th,” she said to herself, and just a few days after a full moon. “Lord be with us.”
That’s how South Mecklenburg High School English teacher Kelly Kniceley remembers going into the last day North Carolina public schools were open seven weeks ago.
She says it was a day full of uncertainty. Everything felt off. “We were trying to keep things normal but also make sure the kids knew they were loved when they left that day, just in case.”
That last measure, “just in case,” proved necessary.
The next day, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order closing all public schools for two weeks, an effort to help slow the spread of coronavirus. On March 23, he extended the order until May 15. On April 24, Cooper extended again, this time closing through the end of the academic year.
Now Kniceley hopes the love she shared that day will last her students through the end of this school year and beyond.
The path forward is still unclear.
The decision to close state schools was made after a frenzy of activity by the state school board to figure out what, exactly, to do about grades for the year.
High school students will have some choice in how they want to be graded. Middle school students will either receive a “pass'” or “withdraw,” though these indicators won’t directly determine whether they move on to the next grade. Elementary school students won’t receive final grades this year.
The grading system is so different this year because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ approximately 148,000 students and 19,000 teachers, support staff, and administrators have moved learning online. There’s some level of difficulty in this for all students but for vulnerable populations, it’s nearly impossible.
“The notion of staying at home in and of itself indicates a level of privilege,” says North Carolina Board of Education member James Ford.
During the 2017-18 school year, CMS reported 4,598 students were homeless. That’s about 400 more students than the previous school year.
For these students, having a consistent and safe place to complete schoolwork is not guaranteed. Not to mention the necessary technology and parental support.
Meanwhile, some students are balancing school work with “essential work.”
West Charlotte High School teacher Kevin Poirier said some of his students are essential workers. At times they have to do schoolwork from their jobs at fast food restaurants and grocery stores.
In most parts of the country a child’s zip code will determine their potential upward mobility. A 2014 report ranked Charlotte last among major U.S. cities in upward mobility. That means people born in to poverty in Charlotte are less likely to escape it than people in other parts of the country.
So, students who already had the odds against them before the pandemic, will have an even harder time with new restrictions in place.
Plus, research shows long gaps in instruction lead to poor retention for students. Normally the gap is a three-month summer break. This year that break will be closer to six months. Once school is back in session, students will likely have forgotten much of what they learned even before the pandemic began.
“I think that the disrupted learning and the loss of learning may very well impact or arrest some of the academic development of some of the students on the margins,” says Ford, a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and co-chair of the Opportunity Task Force that studied economic mobility and made recommendations to city and county leaders. “That may translate to a diminished life chances, diminished mobility.”
Charlotte students in majority low-income areas were already less likely to get a quality education, and move on to college.
A North Carolina report from the 2018-19 school year showed only 15.9 percent of incoming freshman at Harding University High were proficient in reading and math. More than half of the students were classified as economically disadvantaged. The school’s graduation rate was 55.6 percent last school year.
By comparison, 73.8 percent of incoming freshmen at Ardrey Kell in south Charlotte were proficient in reading and math. About nine percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Ardrey Kell’s graduation rate was 95 percent.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports young adults from 25-34 without a high school diploma in 2017 made an average of $26,000 annually. Those in the same age range with a high school diploma made an average of $32,000 annually.
The clearest visual representation of how opportunity is spread among Charlotte’s neighborhoods might be The Opportunity Atlas, put together by researchers with Harvard, Brown, and the Census Bureau. The deeper the red, the lower the outcomes for a child. The darker the blue, the higher.
People who study opportunity point to a number of reasons for the wide gap in outcomes. But the resegregation of schools over the past 20 years is usually somewhere near the top of the list.
In 1971, the Supreme Court case Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, maintained that busing, a practice that uses a child’s race to determine their school instead of their neighborhood, was the best way to integrate schools. The landmark case led to North Carolina becoming a national leader in school desegregation.
Decades later, those integration practices are no longer in place and Mecklenburg County’s schools now are the most segregated in North Carolina.
Ford, who’s the executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education, fears that a long gap in in-person instruction will put already disadvantaged groups (minority students, low income students, students who don’t speak English at home, disabled students) even further behind.
“This will have a generational effect on the students who have experienced this,” Ford says. “Particularly those who are the most vulnerable and underserved.”
Beyond providing an education, schools also provide basic needs, including food. “Kids come to our desk for a snack every day because they don’t get breakfast or they don’t know what will be at home,” Kniceley, the South Mecklenburg teacher, says.
In the absence of in-person instruction, Mecklenburg County continued serving free breakfast and lunch for all kids under 18 in the parking lots of 68 of its 175 schools. Other organizations and individual teachers are also working hard to deliver food to meet the need.
Poirier said right now this aspect of his job, the part that focuses on mental and physical health, is his priority.
“Our kids are resilient; they’re smart. Our teachers are resilient; they’re smart. We’re going to do what’s necessary academically but I want to make sure everyone is okay mentally, emotionally, and feels cared for,” Poirier says.
That kind of care is critical because some students rely on school for stability. Children with chaotic lives may use school as a seven-hour break from whatever awaits them at home.
For the time being, that consistency is gone.
“I do worry. Are they OK? Are they managing this?” says Francis Bradley Middle School teacher Addy Kincaid. “They need to feel loved. And I want to make sure (they are) feeling loved while they’re not spending half their time at school.”
It’s unclear exactly how the pandemic will change Mecklenburg County’s public schools, but the teachers and CMS leaders I spoke with are certain some things will never be the same.
One of those big changes right now is the grading system. The North Carolina Board of Education outlined this grading plan for students:
- Elementary school students will not receive final grades.
- Middle school students will receive final grades of “pass” or “withdraw.” Receiving a “withdraw” does not mean the student failed or will be held back. According to the Board of Education it means, “there is a lack of evidence the student mastered the course standards.”
- High school students will have the option to keep the grades they had before schools closed or, if higher, keep their grade from remote learning. The other options for high schoolers are: pass/fail courses to receive credit without impacting their GPA or withdraw from courses and receive no credit with no impact to their GPA.
For students who can’t work from home, this system prevents them from being penalized more for not having resources or access to classes.
While we’re still dealing with the outbreak, it’s hard to know the extent of coronavirus’s effect on disadvantaged students.
Philanthropists, nonprofits, corporations, and foundations have devoted millions to help hold the line against the opportunity gap. The Foundation for the Carolinas and United Way’s COVID-19 Response Fund has raised more than $17 million in two months. About $6.5 million has been distributed to nonprofits, primarily those focused on human services.
That’s on top of the nearly six years worth of fundraising efforts and policy shifts — including Mecklenburg County’s commitment in 2018 to providing universal Pre-K for students.
But nobody could’ve predicted COVID-19. And as data from this school year is released, Ford believes drop-out rates and graduation rates will show what he already knows: The pandemic is having a disproportionately negative effect on marginalized students.
“I knew it was going to expose the fissures and fractures of inequity along very predictable lines,” Ford says. “There are students, student groups who belong to communities that are already on the margins with a ‘fully functioning education system.'”
Poirier says he’s also trying to see the benefits of this most abnormal year in a pandemic. And he hopes it compels leaders to rethink the education system, specifically in areas like discipline.
“No kid will have been suspended, there will be no referrals written. In many ways there will have been no school-to-prison pipeline,” Poirier says. “And in some ways, we have probably saved some lives because of that. And I want us to think about were we better off when we were doing that.”
Ford also hopes this outbreak will serve as a catalyst for change.
“We have to allow this moment to radicalize us,” Ford says. “There is no more normal. So now the question becomes: How do we chart a course forward? And how do we remake or transform a system that does right by those who long before COVID-19 have been left behind?”