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Commentary: SC academics should not take a back seat to athletics

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C. Matthew Ferguson

For one brief moment on a recent Friday night, it was easy to forget it was 2020. It was a beautiful fall night, and the familiar sounds of October evenings were all around us: a garbled voice on a loudspeaker, the drum of a marching band.

It was a perfect night for high school football, but something was off. This game was occurring on the grounds of a school and within a district that is simultaneously barring students from learning in a classroom. If that doesn’t make good sense to you, you aren’t alone.

Public school students in two of the largest districts in South Carolina’s Midlands have no option to participate in learning inside of school buildings. All learning for students occurs virtually. Plans to go to hybrid learning, where students would be able to enter a school building two to three times a week, were announced last week by both Richland County school districts, projected to begin Oct. 26.

Yet contact sports have been occurring on the school grounds of the high schools and middle schools within these same districts, albeit utilizing masks and practicing safety protocols. Spectators are also allowed to attend these games in a limited capacity.

Youth competitive sports are a critical part of public schooling — that is not in question. Participating in extracurricular activities such as sports, theater and debate are instrumental parts of the student experience. Students gain valuable communication skills, practice critical thinking and become more well-rounded graduates as a result.

What is in question is why student-athletes are allowed to participate in contact sports and spectators can attend to watch children play on school grounds that are simultaneously not open to face-to-face learning any day of the week.

This scenario is playing out at the same time that state lawmakers have directed the state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman to pursue a waiver for all federally required academic testing of students, a sobering possibility that will dramatically impact our ability to understand how our students are faring.

The overall academic picture in our state was not a winning one when we last measured student performance. Only 42% of the high school graduates in 2019 were college ready. Only 39% of graduates were both college and career ready. Let that sink in: Fewer than 1 out of 2 of those who walked across a stage to receive a diploma in spring 2019 were both college and career ready.

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Unsurprisingly, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only national yardstick we have to accurately compare the performance of S.C. students with other students in the nation, S.C. students have continued to be outpaced by their peers, even those in Mississippi.

The age of S.C. eighth-graders who performed at or above the NAEP proficient level in reading and math was only 29% in 2019. “Proficient” means a student has “demonstrated solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” These data suggest that students are not where they need to be academically.

And that was pre-COVID. Recent research out of Stanford University estimates that the learning loss caused by school closures could range from a third of a year to a full year in reading, and from three-fourths of a school year to 232 days in math. It will take a unified vision and all-hands-on-deck effort to help our students recover.

Yet student-athletes are playing football in districts where students cannot enter school buildings to learn. And although we now know that Blythewood lost its homecoming game to Northwestern, 19-7, we worry each day that we may go more than a year not knowing how students in South Carolina are progressing academically.

As a former classroom teacher myself, I heartily echo Superintendent Spearman and the editorial staff of this newspaper in opposing this decision by the South Carolina High School League and nearly all of the state’s school districts. We are sending the wrong message about our priorities to the students and families of this state when academics take a back seat to athletics.

We all want a return to normalcy, but we have to be mindful of the messages we send to students and families. Districts that are not allowing parents and students an option for face-to-face learning should not be playing organized sports.

C. Matthew Ferguson is executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee.

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