It's been a year since North Carolina public schools were forced to close their buildings as cases of COVID-19 began popping up in several counties. To this day, many students still haven't set foot in a classroom.

There are lessons learned and challenges that remain as schools slowly begin to reopen.

Rewind to this same time last year. Governor Roy Cooper stood at a podium, flanked by state officials, giving the news that would change the lives of students, parents, and educators — and issued this executive order.

"It directs all K-12 public schools across our state to close for students on Monday, March 16 for at least two weeks."

A year later, scenes like this one are all too familiar. 

"Can you see my screen?" asks a student during a remote learning class at Reedy Fork Elementary in Greensboro. "Yes, I can see your screen," says teacher Rodney Crouse.

Crouse is working with students on a project to create public service announcements about food deserts in Guilford County. He's using online gaming as a teachable moment. 

"Oh my gosh. She's designed a shirt for her character using Roblox," says Crouse.

Some students are thriving in this virtual environment. But many others are struggling. Superintendent of Stokes County Schools Brad Rice says there are scars that will stay with us beyond the pandemic.

"We've had several cases of students hospitalized for self-harm this year. In fact, we've had more students hospitalized with self-harm and we've had zero hospitalized with COVID," he says. "The depression, the anxiety. Students who are getting ready to take an ACT and haven't had a normal school year in 51 weeks."

And Rice says there are still a lot of unknowns to consider as we look to the days and months ahead.  Will there be summer school? What will next year's calendar look like? And what programs will be used to help kids who've fallen behind to get caught up?

“So we are working through those things. It's not perfect. We also have had the worst grades we've ever had. When we look at our failure rate compared to last year, a lot more failures than ever before," he says.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, a majority of high school students didn't pass state End-of-Course exams in the fall.

As for younger students, a majority of third-graders scored at the lowest levels, and three-quarters aren't proficient in reading.

But state education officials say not all students have been tested and other factors need to be assessed before any conclusions can be drawn.

Wake Forest University professor Sara Dahill-Brown says schools will need to figure out ways to address students' needs in several ways.

“I worry that the focus on learning loss will lead to a failure to recognize and address student trauma, student trauma that comes from so many places including losing friends and family members, social isolation, witnessing parent anxiety over finances,” says Dahill-Brown.

Federal COVID-19 relief funding is helping some schools add nurses and counselors to their staff, but districts say it's far from enough.

Ronda Mays is a social worker in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system. She says she's concerned about the kids who are still unaccounted for in districts. And she points to the lack of wifi connectivity, devices, and infrastructure needs as a major problem for many students. 

"We talk about trying to make sure there's equity but this pandemic has shown us how inequitable the resources are in our state,” says Mays.

But there a few silver linings to remote learning. Teacher Rodney Crouse says he's proud of the new tech-savvy skills both he and his students have now. 

“There were tears, real tears about how we were just not going to get things done and how hard it was to figure out Microsoft Teams and Canvas and all of that. But when you look at how far we've come, I don't think anybody could have imagined a year ago that we would be doing the kind of tech stuff and lessons that we are now,“ says Crouse.

Education leaders say it's too early to tell what the lasting impact will be of the pandemic on teacher retention, recruitment, and student enrollment.

A compromise bill announced this week to reopen schools will bring more students back into the classroom. For teachers like Crouse and others, they say it's a sign that maybe things will return to normal soon — whatever that looks like. 

For the most up-to-date information on coronavirus in North Carolina, visit our Live Updates blog here. WFDD wants to hear your stories — connect with us and let us know what you're experiencing.

*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

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