Freebird McKinney gave a group of lawmakers a lot to think about Thursday as they considered ways to respond to school closures because of the COVID-19 crisis.
McKinney, the new director of legislative affairs and community outreach for the State Board of Education, said his bosses are weighing legislative requests for calendar flexibility to allow schools to open in early August for the 2020-21 school year and possibly 2021-2022.
In North Carolina, schools can open no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.
Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools until May 15 or possibly later to slow the spread of the contagious virus.
School closure has disrupted public education, forcing state lawmakers and educators to develop plans to continue to educate students, feed them and to provide broadband access while they are home waiting for the threat to subside.
McKinney said COVID-19 has presented the state with challenges but also opportunity.
“There is an opportunity to re-envision and re-imagine what our North Carolina public schools have been, what they are, what they are becoming and what they will be in the future,” said McKinney, a former state Teacher of the Year.
The SBE will meet today at 11 a.m., to discuss possible legislative requests related to COVID-19 and other virus-related matters.
McKinney made his remarks to a working group of lawmakers assembled to consider the impact COVID-19 has on the state’s public schools.
The House Select Committee on COVID-19 has additional groups addressing the impact of the virus on health care, school safety, the prison system and other government areas.
McKinney said several requests are possible: for state testing waivers, suspension of K-3 reading diagnostics mandated under the state’s Read to Achieve law and waivers to hold schools and districts harmless from the state’s controversial school report cards.
“One of the issues being discussed is to not issue A-F school performance grades for the 2019-2020 academic school year,” McKinney said. “And what that could possibly mean is holding schools and districts harmless under these accountability requirements and also any designation of low-performing schools that would otherwise subject our schools to being included on the Innovative School District (ISD) list.”
Schools with lowest test scores are at risk of being put on the ISD list for a possible takeover by the state.
McKinney said the SBE has also discussed waivers for the 185-day or 1,025-hour minimum required classroom instruction. Under such a waiver, school employees would be paid as though they worked a full calendar year, he said.
Anticipating legislative pushback on some of the possible SBE requests, State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the working group on education, said no decisions have been made.
“Don’t take any of these things that we’re looking at as fact, that we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that,” Horn said. “That would be wrong-headed and inappropriate for some people who are going to get worked up over this, that or the other.”
Before the group met, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, reminded it of its purpose.
“My charge to this committee is to look at things we need to do legislatively,” Moore said. “Clearly end-of-grade testing, end-of-course testing is something that needs to be reviewed.
The State Board of Education (SBE) requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to forgo federally mandated testing this school year. The waiver was granted last week.
A waiver for state-mandated testing will require General Assembly action.
Moore said students must continue to receive a quality education. And teachers and non-classified employees must be treated fairly, he said.
Questions about the treatment of teachers and non-classified employees have arisen as school districts adjust to life under threat of the contagious virus.
Can teachers and non-classified workers be forced to come to work if the school environment is unsafe? If not, will they lose pay if they don’t show up?
Answers are either scarce or haven’t filtered down to school sites. And not all school districts appear to be handling the situation the same way.
“The State Board [of Education] has said, that to the extent feasible, districts should allow employees to work remotely, if not, be able to provide a safe working environment,” said Geoff Coltrane, senior education adviser to Gov. Cooper.
Coltrane said a safe school site is one following U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines. That includes limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people in a single room or space, ensuring the facility is clean, and that people in the building practice social distancing, Coltrane said.
Coltrane made his remarks in response to questions by State Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican, who said the decision to extend school closure demands clarity around the issue of who must report for work.
“If the LEA [Local Education Agency or school district] doesn’t want people working remotely, it feels it can provide a safe environment, does the employee have the option to stay home nevertheless and has to be allowed to do that while getting paid even though there’s no reason why they couldn’t be at school?” Blackwell asked.
Blackwell said allowing educators to work from home wasn’t a problem until school closure was extended to May 15.
“I realize in the short-term, a couple of weeks, this was probably not a big deal … but with us being out of school until May 15, it seems that becomes more of a concern for an LEA interested in maintaining some level of quality in the instruction,” Blackwell said.