Editorial: Make up as much ground as possible in final months of school

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 14, 2021

Now is the time for school districts to help students struggling with mixed methods of attendance or virtual-only learning make up as much ground as possible before the end of the year.

Virus cases are rapidly declining and vaccinations are being administered at an increasing pace. The benefits of in-person learning for students who need it outpace virus-related concerns. A full return is even more attractive if schools require mask wearing, keep fresh air flowing by opening windows or going outside and minimize the degree to which students gather in large groups.

In Rowan-Salisbury Schools, K-5 students will return four days per week on March 29, giving them roughly two months with a schedule that’s closer to pre-pandemic times than anything so far. Students who have struggled learning at home three days per week will have more opportunities for in-person attention from teachers than any prior time during the year.

By the last day of school, May 28, it’s likely a number of elementary school students will be closer to mastering lessons educators hoped to teach than if RSS stayed with a blended schedule.

A bipartisan measure approved by the legislature and governor last week does not require a change for grades 6-12, but it’s worth thinking about it.

At the time of publication, RSS staff members have been working on plans to return elementary students for multiple weeks, including bus schedule and meal plans. They still have two weeks to put the finishing touches on the transition to four days. Will it take longer or about the same amount of time to make a transition for middle and high schoolers?

To make an upper-grade transition worthwhile, it will have to be more useful than disruptive. If RSS needs until mid-April to make a change, how beneficial will six weeks of entirely in-person learning be for a student who has fallen behind in the blended schedule? Probably beneficial enough to justify a change.

The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education has its next regularly scheduled meeting on March 22. At that time, it could ask staff to draw up plans for a change. At a minimum, board members should talk about whether it’s worth bringing back grades 6-12 four days per week, too.

Addressing virus-related concerns for a moment, the most significant concern should be whether returning to in-person classes more days per week will result in COVID-19 spreading within schools. That students or teachers test positive does not mean they contracted the virus in school. At the time of writing, there have been just one cluster — five COVID-19 cases that can be connected to one another — in local public schools. North Hills Christian and a local preschool also had clusters.

Contact tracing, of course, is a central factor in determining whether cases are linked. There may have been more clusters if the county and state had more robust tracing capability, but local data hasn’t shown a clear link to concerning levels of spread in school buildings. At the height of the pandemic late last year, for example, school officials were considering whether to go virtual, but there were no clusters identified in schools.

State Superintendent of Public Education Catherine Truitt framed things well during a February news conference and in a subsequent news release when she said, “Learning loss resulting from COVID has the potential to be a generational hurdle, but the data we have seen shows us that schools can reopen safely if they adhere to COVID prevention policies.”