For the most part, the dropoff in student test scores the N.C. Department of Public Instruction reported last week for the 2020-21 school year was entirely expected. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a year and a half since children have had anything like a normal educational experience.

Still, it’s a bit shocking to see the numbers: Only about 45% of students across North Carolina passed their state reading, math and science exams in the past school year.

In 2018-19 — the last school year untouched by the pandemic — nearly 59% passed.

At the elementary and middle school levels, pass rates were generally bleak.

In reading, 2020-21 pass rates for end-of-grade tests in grades three through eight ranged from 42.4% to 48.2% (versus a range from 55.6% to 60.0% in 2018-19).

In math, pass rates were anywhere from 32.7% to 44.5% (versus 52.6% to 64.3%).

Only in science, where 53.9% of fifth graders and 70.3% of eighth graders passed their end-of-grade tests, was there a bit of good news. But even there, the 2018-19 equivalents were 72.6% and 78.6%, respectively.

And to no one’s surprise, while every group experienced drops, Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged children in general fared worse.

DPI officials were quick to caution that they’re treating the results mainly as a diagnostic tool, pointing to areas where the state and its school districts need to focus to offset the “learning loss” students experienced because of the emergency measures instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19.

They also noted that the pandemic disrupted the testing process itself, leading to a set of numbers that’s not truly comparable to the ones that came before it.

“We need to remember these results are only a snapshot of a year marked by extreme anomalies and extenuating circumstances,” N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said. “To treat these scores as though they are valid indicators of future success or performance would not only be an improper use of these data, but also would be a disservice to our students, teachers and administrators.”

It’s nonetheless fairly obvious that remote learning and paper work packets are dubious substitutes for real schooling. Even the hardest of hard-core advocates of internet-based instruction by now have to acknowledge that the traditional classroom facilitates learning in ways its virtual counterpart does not. The personal touch matters, as does a student’s experience of working with and alongside his or her peers.

The huge gaps that exist in broadband infrastructure locally and across North Carolina surely don’t help, as Granville County Public Schools Superintendent Alisa McLean pointed out.

“Remote learning was a huge part of our efforts during the pandemic, yet we know many families in our communities lack connectivity and broadband access. As a result, many had to rely on paper packets for learning, which was difficult, but the best alternate option we had,” she said. “So, essentially, we had many families who struggled to have equitable access to learning during the hardest times of the pandemic.”

Those problems are why it was important this summer for school officials to plan on operating in-person classes in the 2021-22 school year, taking all possible precautions along the way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections.

Basic literacy and numeracy is easiest to acquire when you’re young, so another year of reduced learning efficiency on top of the 18 months of it they’ve already experienced would trigger near-certain and lasting educational deficits among children. There comes a point in every race where if you’ve fallen behind, it’s impossible to catch up.

Because there’s no getting around that — or getting around the fact of the coronavirus — officials have needed to make wise decisions about infection-control protocols. Fortunately, the school districts here in the Tri-County have followed rather than fought health departments’ advice about masking. It would greatly help, though, if vaccination rates in the region were higher.