C. Matthew Ferguson, Esq., EOC Executive Director

The global COVID-19 pandemic forced South Carolina public schools to abruptly close for the last nine weeks of the 2019-2020 school year. The entire education system, including teachers and administrators at every level, quickly pivoted over a weekend towards remote learning. 

Necessary changes were implemented to ensure that children would continue to receive instruction even without the benefit of face-to-face instruction and brick and mortar classrooms. As a result of the rapid pace of disruption and school closures, all end of year, statewide student assessments were understandably canceled for the 2019-2020 school year. 

Because end of year assessments were canceled, we do not yet know the impact that the COVID-19 remote learning experience had on student learning. Researchers predict students could enter this new school year missing 30% to 50% of what they otherwise would have learned. This is a loss that our children can little afford. Too many were already struggling: in 2019, only 1 out of 2 children (49.7%) were meeting or exceeding state standards in third grade ELA; less than 1 out of 2 children (44.6%) of children were meeting or exceeding state standards in grade 8 ELA. 

Additionally, even before the pandemic, research indicated that long summer breaks were detrimental to economically disadvantaged students, and that summer slides were especially troublesome because the effects were cumulative. By the time a student reaches middle school, they’ve lost an average of two years to summer slide. They’ve been forced to constantly play catch up. When many students return to school this fall, they will have experienced nearly a six-month absence from the classroom. Though it is predicted that all students will suffer, the poorest, most at-risk students will likely suffer the most. 

It was hoped that the actions taken this spring in response to COVID-19, though necessary, would be temporary measures to curb the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the effects of COVID-19 are still being felt by public school districts reopening for the 2020-2021 school year. State and local education and public health leaders are working diligently to return to learning while keeping the health and safety of students and staff first and foremost. 

A review of the plans currently approved by the South Carolina Department of Education reveals only a quarter of public-school districts in South Carolina plan to provide parents a restart to school on a traditional schedule. Most districts are instead offering a hybrid schedule with students reporting to the school building only twice a week. A small, but growing number of school districts are selecting to reopen exclusively online. 

Additionally, almost all public-school districts in South Carolina are offering parents the option of some form of virtual only instruction for their children, though the particulars of these programs vary widely by school district across the state. A summary of South Carolina public school reopening plans can be found here. To find the specifics of your school district’s approved plan, click here

The Education Oversight Committee plans to monitor this continually developing situation as well as follow lessons learned from across the country. In this time of instructional disruption, the importance of understanding student mastery of state standards has never been more critical, and at this point in the school year, the approval of a waiver to federal assessments would be premature. The vast majority of federal required assessments will not be administered until late Spring of 2021, nine months from now. For an overview of assessment in South Carolina public schools, see this infographic.

More importantly, two years of no summative testing will mean that educators, at the school and district level, and policymakers will lack the information to be able to make data-informed decisions on behalf of students. While we recognize that there are challenges and limitations, we need useful information on student achievement in order to adjust instruction and the system. We have a responsibility to know so we can continue to do better. 

Many challenges are ahead. There is also much potential for discovery, if only we resist the urge to blame the messenger and commit to collect the data. It is true that no one has ever taught under the requirements that will be necessary during this new normal. Adjustments will be necessary. Grace will be needed. 

But we also have the opportunity to work collaboratively to reimagine what is possible for all students in South Carolina. While forging this new frontier, we could discover lessons of innovation that raise the expectations for what all children in our state can achieve, or we can stick our heads in the sand while hoping for the best. 

Data collection is a key element to unlocking this potential and learning the lessons from these obstacles and new ways of operation. We have a responsibility to the children to move forward purposefully, founded on fact, not good intentions and spin.