After spending the better part of a school year learning entirely remotely, students returned to Buncombe County Schools in February — under a hybrid plan, with part of the week at home and part at school. And all that absence from the classroom took a toll.
The county’s 2021 end-of-grade test scores displayed significant deterioration compared with 2019 results for all grades and subjects. Enrollment dropped as well, with more families than usual opting to home-school or attend private schools, even as the county system returned to full in-person learning in August.
The staffing situation at local schools also shifted significantly over the year. At least seven Buncombe schools got new principals in 2021; meanwhile, at least 18 vacant teacher positions are posted with the county, and at least 21 vacancies are open at Asheville City Schools.
On the political front, national debates over masks and COVID-19 measures in schools also played out in Buncombe — as did the conservative uproar over critical race theory. And new legislation means the Asheville City Board of Education will be elected rather than appointed starting next year.
As a parent or educator, what worried you most about schooling in 2021?
“Aside from the obvious fear of my child catching a deadly virus, I’ve been concerned about the administration at Asheville City Schools. I am hopeful that, now that we have a path towards having an elected school board, we will see new leadership that is invested in our community and can provide accountability and stability for our students. Our family has been so impressed by how the teachers and schools have managed this difficult year, and I hope that soon our state and district will give teachers the pay and the respect that they deserve.” — Drew Reisinger, Register of Deeds, Buncombe County
“As much as I supported and understood the necessity of online schooling, it was a bit of a disaster. It was really frustrating watching my daughter struggle with it, and frankly I was happy as hell when in-person returned. My daughter is very cautious and wears her mask willingly, and getting back in person was really crucial for her. I wouldn’t wish online schooling on anybody. It was a mess.” — Scott Treadway, actor
“Educators are doing incredible work in a challenging environment, so I worry we may lose some of our most talented folks to the significant pressures they are under. We need to take care of our teachers, administrators and staff. Likewise, I am concerned about the stress that many students are under, and I hope that as a society we can devote resources to help young people manage their stress. On a related note, parks are great places for kids to reduce stress, so adults, get some kids outside in 2022!” — Tracy Swartout, superintendent, Blue Ridge Parkway
“My greatest worry has to do with the profound negative impact on students’ mental health given the extensive isolation and disruption they have experienced. We need only look to the recent school shooting tragedy in Michigan to understand the extent of the mental health challenges facing our youths.” — Holly Jones, WNC community outreach coordinator, N.C. Department of Justice
“The pandemic forced us into remote learning until vaccines, masks and improved understanding of the virus allowed us to return to the classrooms. At first, I worried about student and staff health on returning, but our safety protocols proved effective, and the joy of working with students in person was so strong. This school year has been hard. Student emotional needs are higher than they have ever been, but academic requirements haven’t gone away. Lacking adequate funding for our schools, we haven’t had the staff to meet students’ needs as they should be met.” — Daniel Withrow, president, Asheville City Association of Educators
“The thing that worried me the most about school this year was consistency. Knowing that school could be shut down in the blink of an eye. More importantly, the disappointment the kids would have — those that got a taste of being in school for the first time or the ones who were just glad to be back in school.” — Keynon Lake, executive director, My Daddy Taught Me That
How has your guidance to young people changed in response to the last year?
“Guidance? I’m afraid that my generation isn’t in a position to offer guidance. We have built incredibly powerful institutions: governments, corporations, schools, media empires and organized religion. But we seem to have allowed them to become unmoored from any sense of a social contract. Many young people want to walk away from these institutions. I think that would be a grave mistake. I counsel young people to lean in and to take control of these institutions. With better governance, their power to do good is unparalleled in human history.” — Tina Madison White, executive director, Blue Ridge Pride Center
“As a professor at UNC Asheville, the message has become less about personal achievement and more about having students slow down to really check in with themselves, their friends and their families — to build community and take time to remind themselves of what’s truly important.” — Trey Adcock, executive director, Center for Native Health
“We’re all paying a lot more attention to social and emotional needs. The pandemic has been traumatic for everyone, including for children, and it really shows in the schools. Children are often in crisis, and we have to help their mental and emotional health at the same time as we help them develop academic skills and knowledge. I have heard criticism of, and contempt for, social/emotional learning, but never from anyone who has spent any part of this year in a classroom. By attending to all a child’s needs, we can see them thrive and take joy in school.” — Daniel Withrow
“I have found myself encouraging both young and old alike to take time to breathe, to feel, to spend time with family and to celebrate the good things that are surrounding them in the midst of what seems like unending chaos and conflict.” — Rev. Tami Forte Logan, founder, Faith 4 Justice Asheville
How have politicized debates in education impacted your life?
“We are fortunate in Asheville that the twin scourges of misinformation about COVID and misinformation about critical race theory haven’t really taken hold. We practice appropriate health protocols and struggle to build an anti-racist educational system. But the politicization of educational funding is hitting us hard. The state continues to underpay school staff, and staff are leaving at unprecedented rates. We are in a staffing emergency the likes of which I’ve never seen before — and without a dramatic change in funding for schools, I don’t know how we’re going to make it through the emergency.” — Daniel Withrow
“I have been a public educator for 20 years, so unfortunately, this is not new. Part of the gig. — Trey Adcock
“I don’t feel impacted as much personally, but I am concerned about how aggressive adults have been in school board meetings and the way they are shaping the minds of their children around mask mandates, vaccinations and critical race theory. Children mimic the adults in their lives, and if adults can’t have respectful discourse with people who don’t share the same beliefs, ideology or strategies, children will not learn to think critically, problem-solve or engage in healthy relationships or debates. The world is watching us, and it is becoming embarrassing to see grown people behaving like middle-schoolers.” — Rev. Tami Forte Logan
What happened in 2021 that gives you hope for the children in your life?
“Every day my students amaze and delight me. They program computers, build marvelous constructions from paper, write hilarious stories, create tricky mathematical codes and make videos of their pandemic experiences. And they love and support one another, even when it’s hard. When the logistics and bureaucracies of modern education leave me exhausted and dispirited, I find joy in the young people I work with, in their creativity, compassion and love of learning. We’ve got to come together to do right by them, but the kids are going to be all right.” — Daniel Withrow
“Honestly, my own daughter’s maturity and resilience more than anything. She handled the adversity of 2021 with a grace and strength that makes me so proud, whereas so many adults around her handled it like petulant children.” — Scott Treadway
“Here at Buncombe County, we are supporting creation of more than 250 new child care opportunities through our Early Childhood Education and Development Fund, and our libraries have not only found creative ways to engage children during the pandemic but also delivered nearly 6,000 books to child care centers across the county.” — Tim Love, director of economic development and governmental relations, Buncombe County
“Children are incredibly resilient and amazingly forgiving, sometimes more so than we are as adults. In this year of unrest, I continue to see examples of young people leading, positively, by example, towards a future of their own design. I am certain that the future is in good hands.” — Tracy Swartout