North Carolina public schools to stay closed through May 15; state requests testing waiver

Gov. Roy Cooper

North Carolina’s schools will not reopen before May 15 because of  COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Monday that he will sign an executive order to extend school closures until the threat of the contagious virus has subsided.

The governor announced March 16 that schools would be closed two weeks for 1.5 million North Carolina students in grades K-12. But few thought schools would reopen two weeks after Cooper closed them.

“I’m not ready to give up on this year of school, however we know that the effects of this pandemic will not subside anytime soon,” Cooper said during an afternoon press conference.

The known cases of coronavirus in North Carolina had grown to nearly 300 early Monday.

If schools reopen, they would do so on Monday, May 18, less than a month before districts operating on traditional school calendars are scheduled to close for summer break.

Cooper was joined by state health and emergency management officials, State Superintendent Mark Johnson and State Board of Education Vice Chairman Alan Duncan.

SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan

Duncan, a former Guilford County Board of Education chairman, said educators are optimistic. They want to believe schools will reopen May 18, he said. But schools will reopen only if public health officials say that it’s safe to do so, Duncan said.

Returning to school is especially important for members of the Class of 2020 concerned about graduation, Duncan said.

“We are working on that at both the state level and local level to ensure that you can have a smooth transition to the end of your high school career and [smooth] start to your continuing education or work career,” Duncan said.

Johnson asked parents to set a structure for their children to keep them learning and engaged.

“We can’t treat this as a long break,” Johnson said. “Your child doesn’t have to master calculus at home but help keep them engaged in their learning. Wake up at a reasonable time every morning, work on remote learning for a few hours every day, get outside – social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t get fresh air – and go to bed at reasonable time. Set a schedule and stick to it.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

He noted that the Department of Public Instruction has developed a website that includes resources for remote learning and that teachers and schools will provide options, as well.

“Resources for remote learning, both digital and physical, have been shared, and teachers have been truly amazing in putting together plans for their students to continue learning during this unprecedented national crisis,” Johnson said.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) applauded the decision to keep schools closed.

“We know the decisions made thus far have been difficult to make, but ultimately the correct ones,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell. “Today’s announcement continues to move us in a direction that takes into consideration the safety and well-being of educators and students alike, and we believe it is ultimately the right decision.”

Jewell also asked the governor to clarify protocols for employee pay and work-site safety, and to provide the “the appropriate precautions, protections, resources, and tools that educators need to do their jobs during these incredibly difficult times.”

Testing waiver

Also Monday, the State Board of Education unanimously agreed to seek a one-year testing waiver in a special called meeting.

Tests waived for North Carolina’s students would include end-of-grade tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, science tests in grades 5 and 8 and end-of-course tests in Math 1 and 3, biology and English 2.

The waiver would also include the state’s A-F school performance grades as well as a number of elements included in the state’s School Report Cards.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced Friday that states can apply for waivers due to school closures caused by COVID-19. States unable to assess students due to the pandemic will be granted a waiver from testing this school year after submitting the proper request.

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations,” DeVos said in a news release.

She added: “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time. Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”

The SBE will also discuss an exemption from state testing requirements with leaders of the General Assembly.

“Chairman [Eric] Davis has already opened up some of those discussions with members of the legislature and let them know that in the wake of this submission [for a federal testing waiver], we’ll be coming to them with a full listing of state level accountability requirements, ties to bonuses, etc., that we would request waivers from, consistent with this waiver,” said SBE member J.B. Buxton, chairman of the board’s Student Learning and Achievement Committee.

Tammy Howard, state director of accountability services for NCDPI, said the department plans to submit its waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education, and should be processed within one business day.

The state needs the waiver because of the disruptions caused by the national emergency, Howard told the SBE.

“All assessments must be administered under conditions that ensure that these data are valid and reliable,” Howard said, “and we cannot do that at this time.”

COVID-19, Higher Ed

Commencement cancelled for UNC System schools as system prepares for long-term COVID-19 changes

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper.

Commencement ceremonies for all UNC System schools has been officially cancelled over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper announced Friday.

“Simply put, we believe spring graduation ceremonies will be disrupted and it’s time to make alternative plans,” Roper said at the UNC Board of Governors meeting.

The system doesn’t anticipate the pandemic will disrupt the completion of the spring semester and the awarding of degrees, Roper said — just the ceremonies themselves, which can’t be held with appropriate social distancing procedures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have emphasized that people should be no closer than 6 feet apart from one another.

“I know and understand this will disappoint our students and their families who have worked so hard toward this goal for so many years,” Roper said. “But health and safety of our students, faculty and staff must be our top priority.”

Only one board member, Bob Rucho, objected to the move. Rucho, a former state senator, said families have already made plans to attend graduation ceremonies and called cancelling them “way premature.”

Roper’s announcement followed a report to the board by Dr. David Weber, Medical Director of UNC Hospitals’ Departments of Hospital Epidemiology (Infection Prevention).

The current pandemic should peak in four to 12 weeks, Weber said, but social distancing will continue to be necessary for an additional month to six weeks. The current precautions will likely need to be in place into mid-August. It could be as long as five months before people can safely go back to eating in restaurants and attending sporting events, Weber said.

Because this will likely become an endemic coronavirus — one that infects people at a fairly predictable or stable rate — Weber said, we will likely see a second wave during respiratory infection season next year.

The UNC System has about 80,000 students living on the campuses of its 17 schools, Roper said. The university stepped up efforts to get students out of the dorms this week. By the weekend there should be only about 10 percent of the on-campus population remaining, Roper said.

Chancellors at the individual schools are trying to act with sensitivity and support students who have no other options for housing, food and Internet access that will allow them to continue their courses, Roper said. About 95 percent of courses across the university system have been converted to online-only, he said.

Roper said the UNC system is looking at the possibility of moving to a pass/fail grading system for the Spring 20/20 semester, but has not made a decision on the issue.

There are remaining questions about student refunds for housing and meal plans, as well as how the system’s priorities and day-to-day functions, Roper said. Further answers to some of those questions are expected next week, Roper said. The UNC Board of Governors tabled all of its budgetary request items to the legislature in Friday’s meeting.

COVID-19, Higher Ed

UNC Board of Governors meets today amid questions, tensions over COVID-19

The UNC Board of Governors will hold a special, full board meeting Friday via teleconference after a full day of teleconference committee meetings Thursday that in many ways offered more questions than answers.

Many questions about how the system will  respond to the COVID-19 pandemic long-term, or even past this semester, were tabled until the full board meeting. A discussion of postponing commencement was brief and did not come to a conclusion. Discussions of the challenges students face in trying to move out of their dorms by this weekend while resuming classes online was tabled for the Friday’s full board meeting.

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis was rebuffed in several attempts to have budget and legislative priorities drawn up a month ago rewritten or tabled in light of the pandemic.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand,” Kotis said during a budget discussion that involved sending hundreds of millions of dollars in budget priorities to the North Carolina General Assembly.

The asks to the legislature included funding for new classroom and dormitory buildings as well as for summer classes. Kotis said that in light of so much uncertainty about when students may return to campus and the likelihood that the pandemic will stretch into summer, the board should instead be asking for money to expand its online education capacity and should not be approving the use of cash for most capital projects.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

But the majority of board members present said that while the pandemic is of great importance, the board can’t throw aside long-term planning.

Unable to get the committees of which he is a part to postpone budget and legislative priority items, Kotis instead asked that they at begin putting together updated asks for the General Assembly specific to the pandemic.

“I’d like to request we develop budget priorities specific to the coronavirus impact over the next month and have that be available for the legislature before they return on the [April 28th], including some mission critical items that relate to COVID-19,” Kotis said.

Though Interim UNC System President Bill Roper assured Kotis that was already underway, Kotis did get a commitment that the board will work on pandemic-specific needs, with Roper leading the efforts.

In remarks to several committees, Roper emphasized the seriousness of the pandemic and the questions is raises for management of the 17-campus university system.

In a personal and uncharacteristic aside, Roper referred to The Bible in discussing what he called the “unprecedented challenge” of the pandemic.

“If you read Esther, Chapter 4 it has relevant language for times such as this,” Roper said.

“To state the obvious, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that not only is effecting the university system but every person, family, business and institution across North Carolina and the nation,” Roper said. “In a crisis like the one we’re in, we have to apply the principles of triage  — meaning, we’ll focus on the most critical and urgent issues now and then get to others in due course. But that doesn’t mean way in the future — it means tomorrow, the next day, so on.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

“We’ve set as priorities the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Roper said. “Secondly, continuing our academic mission by transitioning to online learning. I’m pleased to tell you that 95 percent of our classes or more are now ready to go online. We’re ensuring that our students have a place to live with access to online studies and access to nutrition.”

“I tell you, I believe we will get through this,” Roper said. “But it will not be easy. We simply don’t know when this is going to be over and we have to be prepared for the long haul. We’ve been working with the chancellors  and their teams, who are on the front lines — also with state and county officials. I’ve spoken many times this week with the governor, with [House] Speaker [Tim] Moore, with [Senate] President Pro Tem [Phil] Berger, with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and our board leaders, especially [UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy] Ramsey and we’ve been in touch with our congressional delegation in Washington.”

“There are many other issues that are on peoples’ minds,” Roper said. “Just to name a few of those, beginning with what financial issues do we face, what refunds will students be due such as housing and dining. And I would commit to you that we will in a position to start to answer those questions in the next week. But I say again, we’re in a serious global pandemic and we’re proceeding with the expectation that this will get worse before it gets better. I had the occasion to talk to the leaders of several of our large health systems across North Carolina and they are preparing for an onslaught of patients at their institutions.”

“I will tell you I am confident we  will not get everything right,” Roper said. “But we will make corrections as we move forward.”

The public can listen to Friday’s full meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, which begins at 9 a.m. Friday,  via a live stream.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors meeting via teleconference this week

The UNC Board of Governors is holding committee meetings Thursday and a special full board meeting Friday, all via teleconference, as the system continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The public can listen to a live audio stream of the meetings online through a special web page set up for that purpose.

A full schedule of the meetings is available here.

Policy Watch will be reporting on these meetings.

Earlier this week, the UNC system began closing dorms and dining halls at all of its 17 schools as it saw its first COVID-19 case, an employee at UNC-Chapel Hill.

UNC System Interim President Dr. Bill Roper released a video Wednesday morning, providing an update on the quickly evolving situation and the university system’s reactions to the pandemic.

Concerned students at UNC-Chapel Hill are petitioning to follow many other top colleges and universities in moving to a pass/fail grading system for the Spring 2020 semester as their academic lives have been upended.

COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

Petition to move to pass/fail grading at UNC-Chapel Hill getting heavy support

A petition  to move to pass/fail grading for all courses at UNC-Chapel Hill for the Spring Semester has gained momentum, surpassing its original goal of 5,000 signatures in fewer than 24 hours.

The petition was organized by students concerned about the impact of massive changes to instruction and housing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It is swiftly moving toward a new goal of 7,500 signatures. Faculty and staff have also been expressing support for the idea online. The university yet to announce a change in grading policy.

The UNC System has not yet addressed how any of its schools might handle grading for the semester or graduation.

From the petition’s explanation of the problem:

Due to the spread of COVID-19, UNC’s campus as well as many other college campuses and educational institutions around the country have decided to discontinue face-to-face instruction and proceed with virtual instruction. While this decision greatly serves the population and protects everyone from potential exposure to illness and contaminants, it puts the students of UNC at an educational disadvantage for a variety of reasons.

First, this system of learning through Zoom Conferencing and virtual instruction prevents meetings with professors and TAs in person. While we can still interact with our professors and TAs through email, phone, and video-calling, there are limitations including one’s time zone, WIFI availability, logistical organization, etc. Additionally, an inability to physically be on campus poses challenges to students’ educational quality. UNC provides multiple resources for students that will no longer be available. Indefinite virtual instruction means an end to the access, putting many students at a disadvantage. These disadvantages cause a great deal of stress for students, adding on the fact that the course load and material will still be the same.

Furthermore, virtual instruction for the duration of the semester would cause a great deal of difficulty for professors and TAs as well. Classes in which participation is weighted heavily would be difficult to grade just considering the first half of the semester. It is unfair for both the professors and the students to have to find alternative ways to measure and quantify this part of education.

UNC is also a very diverse community with students coming from all parts of the globe. International students and even students living in different parts of the country (specifically the West Coast) would have to stay up or wake up at strange times to “attend” virtual classes. For instance, lectures starting at 8 am in Chapel Hill, NC would require that students on the West Coast be up at 5 am to participate in the class. For international students, this would mean really early or really late times. This is unfair to them as the university emphasized for students to return to their permanent addresses during this period of uncertainty. This jeopardizes the mental health of a plethora of students who have to continue doing school work, “attending” class, and figuring out when to eat and sleep while maintaining a regularity that is simply impossible with this system.

Offering a pass/fail option for all classes, including those required for the major, will help alleviate some of the stress caused by measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  If a class this semester is used as a prerequisites for a future class the letter grade requirement will be waived as well. This has been done in the past; pass/fail grades in response to a national emergency (i.e. Vietnam War Demonstrations in the 70’s).  UNC students are driven and passionate but even under the right circumstances, the amount of work and engagement can be exhausting and detrimental to the general mental health of the student body. We all made it to UNC, we all can do the work. Making the semester “lower stakes” wouldn’t discourage students from doing well in their classes, but rather allow some leeway for those put in tough academic situations. The university has done well in allowing for students to retrieve their belongings and supporting us through keeping student health open. This is recognized and commended. However, this entire process has put a large strain on the mental health and future plans of many students. We urge you to make classes pass/fail in order to make truly equitable policy for this ever-changing situation.


The Students of UNC


The student organizers have noted many of the country’s top schools — including Georgetown, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon — have now moved to a pass/fail system in reaction to the pandemic, while other universities have implemented a “no finals” policy.