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By Melba Newsome

This story is  supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and co-published by NC Health News, the Charlotte Post and the Charlotte Observer.

Every day when Oscar Barrett picked up his three young children from his mother’s house, his first question was “how was school today?” Most times he received shrugs or non-committal and disinterested responses like “fine” and “OK.” Anything beyond that came from 10-year-old Hallie, who had excelled at school since pre-K and tested into the gifted classes.

The 33-year-old father of three recalls the September afternoon when his daughter interrupted his vacuuming for a heart-to-heart talk. Oscar was completely taken aback by what she had to say.

“Dad, I’m worried I’m going to fail the fourth grade,” she said near tears. “I missed a few assignments and I forgot to get my log filled out. I just feel that school is a lot harder.”

Like most students in North Carolina, her schooling had been upended for nearly a year. On March 12, Union County closed its schools after detecting E. coli in the water supply that posed an acute health risk. Two days later Gov. Cooper issued a statewide shut down for public schools for two weeks, a closure he later extended to the end of the regular school year.

For the rest of the school term, Walter Bickett Elementary sent take-home packets for the school children. Oscar’s mother Regina Barrett stepped in, initially just for child care. Then, as the weeks ticked by, she took an active role in their learning to make sure they didn’t fall behind.

“In the summer, we did some reading and spelling and I had workbooks for them, not every day but I tried to keep them from getting rusty,” says Regina.

When the shutdown initially began, state and district leaders speculated that the disruption could last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Those rosy predictions were long gone by the time the new academic year rolled around. It started off with the children totally reliant on virtual learning and with Regina juggling the roles of grandmother, caregiver and teacher.

“It’s been about 40 years since I was in school and I can recall most things that I need to know for the basics,” says Regina. “But they call on the older people to teach these children without knowing our skill level.”

The downside of this arrangement was already showing. If Oscar’s bright, engaged daughter was struggling, he had no doubt that Asher, 8, and Asa, 5, were as well.

“I was concerned about them falling behind because they don’t have an actual teacher who’s a professional in what they do,” says Oscar.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute, titled COVID-19 and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy, found that online learning and teaching are effective only if students have consistent access to the internet and computers and if teachers have received targeted training and support for online instruction.

A recent analysis from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows that the pandemic has widened existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in education. By the end of the academic year, students of color could lose a full year of math learning compared to nine months for white students.

One family’s routine

Barrett’s young children have had a disproportionate share of heartbreak and upheavals in their young lives. In February 2018, their 31-year-old mother, Samiya, succumbed to a multi-year battle with colon cancer. At the end of the school year, Oscar moved his family from the Ballantyne area to his hometown of Monroe where grandparents on both sides would be able to help with after school care while he worked at a retail distribution center.

The move to remote learning eliminated the largest source of free child care. Working parents had to miss work, change their hours or find different, mostly paid accommodations.

In addition, students who were already vulnerable found themselves in the least desirable learning situations with inadequate tools and support systems to guide them.

Regina Barrett stands with her grandson Asher Barrett, 8, in a room he used as a classroom in her Monroe, NC home on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. Regina Barrett began juggling the roles of grandmother, caregiver and teacher to help out when the shutdown of schools began last year. Photo credit: David T. Foster III/ Charlotte Observer. Used with permission.

Fortunately, Oscar had the family support that allowed his children to meet the baseline requirements for remote schooling.

“I’m not a teacher but, as a grandparent, I’m going to do everything I can to help them to keep up,” says Regina. “I basically tried to oversee and make sure they were where they were supposed to be.”

Each weekday morning, Oscar dropped the kids off at his parents home around 7:00 a.m. before heading to work. Regina prepared and served them breakfast, then made sure they were in the classroom space she’d set up and, on their school-issued Chromebooks and logged into the Canvas learning management system by 7:30 a.m.

The digital divide

The pandemic has put the digital divide–urban and rural, white and Black, poor and wealthy–on full display. While most families have some form of internet connection, many lack the kind of digital access required for virtual learning. Overall, 80 percent of North Carolina residents live in a household with broadband internet service but only 71 percent of Black North Carolinians do.

The Barretts quickly discovered that their internet service wasn’t fast enough for virtual learning and upgraded to broadband, an option many North Carolinians don’t have, either because it’s unaffordable or not available in their area.

Still, the virtual learning routine was not without its challenges. There were almost daily technical or connection problems and Regina often found it difficult to keep her little classroom focused.

“Their attention wavered so much, especially when no grownup is present. Sometimes they’d just leave the Chromebook and wander off,” she says.

She grew increasingly concerned that they weren’t getting what they needed.

“Hallie already wasn’t challenged enough for how bright she was. I tried to drill her multiplication table so that she could get a grip on that and the little one needs some special speech help.”

Once when Oscar was off work and took control of the home schooling for two days, he got a taste of what Regina’s days looked like.

“I got to be a phys ed teacher, a cafeteria worker and the teacher. How in the world do you do this?” he texted his mother.

Regina laughed out loud when she read it. “I said ‘now add about 32 years to yourself and then you’ll see how I feel!’”

A return to normal?

Across the state, the majority of students continue to learn remotely and their educational futures may well be in flux well into the spring. Several school districts that had reopened for in-person classes, or had planned to, scaled back as coronavirus infections and deaths reached new levels almost every day and the vaccine roll-out hit a number of snags.

New CDC guidance published in the Journal of the American Medical Association will likely increase pressure on school districts to return to in-person learning. Several studies that evaluated COVID-19 exposure among children under 18 suggests the risk of classroom infection is relatively low. In 11 North Carolina school districts where 90,000 students and staff occupied school classrooms for nine weeks, researchers linked only 32 COVID-19 infections to school settings, compared to 773 cases linked to community spread. In a February 2 press briefing, Gov. Cooper made a strong push to reopen schools for in-person learning.

It’s true that all students are suffering but, according to the McKinsey report, those who entered the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss. Black and Hispanic students are more likely than white students to be learning remotely, and they are twice as likely as white students to have received no live contact with teachers over the previous week.

And it’s long been understood that people with higher educational attainment, tend to live longer and healthier lives than those with less education, independent of where they live or their income.

Years from now, when the coronavirus pandemic is in the rear view mirror, it’s very possible that it will be viewed as the most devastating and lasting disruption to public education for students of color since the separate but equal doctrine was overturned.

In the meantime, Union County schools have returned to in-person learning and Hallie and Asher are in school four days a week. It’s a big relief for the Barretts but they realize that many other families were not as lucky.

“I’m blessed to have my mom with me,” says Oscar. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”

Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...