NC Leaders Talk Across Difference About How to Best Address K-12 Education Needs During COVID-19

Duke’s North Carolina Leadership Forum released a report this week on K-12 education during the COVID pandemic, sharing the results of a dialogue amongst 20 diverse statewide leaders that considered the short-term and long-term effects on school operations, student learning and school support systems for children and families.

Established in 2015, the forum seeks to foster constructive engagement between North Carolina policy, business, and non-profit leaders across party lines, ideologies, professional experiences, and regional perspectives.

Participants were alumni of a 2019 cohort that explored school choice, and reconvened online in June and October 2020. All group members are at the forefront of local or state efforts to educate children during the pandemic as the heads of schools, school superintendents, state legislators, business leaders, nonprofit directors working on education policy or other community leaders. 

Two participants, Senator Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) and Representative Ashton Clemmons (D-Guilford), were heavily involved in crafting NC’s early response to state education needs during COVID-19. Ballard and Clemmons jointly published an op-ed in April 2020, attributing their collaboration in part to their experience getting to know each other in the NCLF program.

The NCLF alumni identified four areas of concern:

  • COVID has burdened ongoing school operations with new needs that are hard to anticipate and costly;
  • Remote/hybrid learning has negatively impacted academic quality and increased learning gaps, particularly for specific at-risk student populations;
  • Schools and school system supports for children and families have been disrupted by COVID;
  • COVID has led to changes in school culture that may have short- and long-term negative effects on the whole community.

Participants shared ideas about how to reopen schools safely and ways to improve remote/hybrid learning, with strong disagreements emerging over the benefits and downsides of different solutions and which to prioritize.

NCLF alumni reflect the diversity of North Carolina and their conversation captured the tradeoffs between safety, cost, choice, timing, flexibility, experimentation and adaptability. For example, while some favored opening schools for in-person learning quickly and shared stories of children harmed by school closures, others expressed concern about risks to teachers and around community transmission.

Participants also explored both the costs associated with operational needs if schools were open and costs related to improving the quality of remote learning.

The group did find significant consensus around three areas of need: improved internet and device access; better data collection and sharing of best practices with local education agencies; and enhanced communication with parents.

Finally, the cohort discussed how the pandemic has influenced their thinking about educational needs in North Carolina. The group suggested ways the state might implement changes that serve the educational system and children and families for the long-term after COVID-19, particularly by involving the private sector and local communities. 

“Our alumni’s conversations during the COVID-19 crisis illustrated the value of building a network in which leaders across North Carolina can talk to each other about important issues, even when they disagree,” said NCLF co-chair Leslie Winner. “We hope these conversations can be a model for addressing other critical policy issues in NC and around the country.”

While COVID-19 has disrupted K-12 education for all participants, engaging in dialogue during this time fostered not only ideas for moving forward during the pandemic, but stimulated a larger reflection on the purpose and value of K-12 education in the state and how it can better serve children and our communities in the future. NCLF will continue to convene alumni and new leaders in 2021 that will demonstrate how such dialogues can foster constructive policy engagement in North Carolina and other states.