Remote teaching and learning may continue for some students, teachers after schools reopen

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

When traditional schools reopen, possibly in mid-August, it won’t likely be for everyone.

Teachers and students at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus could be asked to continue teaching and learning remotely, according to Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Johnson shared those thoughts last week in an email message to members of a task force studying and planning for the reopening of schools.

“Since the start of our switch to remote learning in March, I have held the belief that we are going to need to utilize remote learning next school year as well in some form or fashion,” Johnson said. “As guidelines start to take shape, we see that we will need options to at least protect students and teachers who are in the high-risk category.”

Johnson also warned that the reopening of schools won’t be easy.

Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to screen students before they enter school buildings will take a herculean effort, he said.

“Depending on how schools must screen students before entering, a screening process could take hours if schools are near capacity,” Johnson said. “And, that doesn’t even start to account for the space required depending on NC DHHS’ [N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’] upcoming guidance on social distancing at schools.”

Johnson said state education leaders are rethinking how remote learning might look for the state moving forward.

Ideas include:

  • Addressing teacher shortages through the help of teachers in the at-risk category who could create remote lessons from home for students anywhere in the state to use.
  • More remote lessons coordinated from the district or state level instead of individual schools creating all of their own lessons (allowing teachers more one-on-one time with students, even if remotely).
  • Utilizing more remote learning tools with built in lessons and support that already have a strong track record of use before this crisis.
  • Reopening schools for lower grades first while relying on remote learning at the start of the year for high school.
COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC schools outline campus return plans

Several campuses in the UNC system are revealing their plans for students to return to school, though they are light on detail and tentative.

Both UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T said Monday that they plan to welcome students back to campus in August for the fall semester. Both schools will eliminate the traditional fall break.

UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam.

“This plan reduces the need for people to leave campus, disperse widely, and then return in the middle of the semester,” UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam  told students in a message Monday. Limiting movement is key for managing virus spread. It also enables us to maintain the necessary instructional days required to meet our academic standards and best serve our students.”

Both campuses also plan to eliminate Reading Day, hold final exams online and end their fall semester at Thanksgiving. They are tentatively scheduling in-person commencement ceremonies for December but both schools say that and many of the details of the fall calendar will depend on developments with the COVID-19 virus, which health experts say will likely have new spikes during the traditional cold and flu season.

“While we will be prepared to resume in-person instruction this fall, we are taking important steps to significantly reduce the number of students on campus in late November and December, to help manage community spread of infection,” said N.C. A&T Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Beryl C. McEwen in a message to the campus community. “As the largest historically black university in the nation, we appreciate the special challenge that we face to protect our sizable student body, and we will be working throughout the summer to make sure we are ready.”

The UNC Board of Governors meets Wednesday. When and how each of the campuses may return to full-time in-person instruction will be discussed.

Some higher education experts have warned that any return to normal operations for the fall semester is too soon and that universities are largely ill-equipped to provide the kind of social distancing necessary to prevent further community spread of the virus.

“In addition to the calendar changes, we are currently assessing all of the other implications of COVID-19 on our operations,” Gilliam told students in his message. “We will maintain maximum flexibility in our planning, knowing that conditions may evolve over the summer.”


Safety guidelines for reopening schools are expected soon, according to state health official

They’re the big questions of the day.

What does the timeline look like for deciding when to and how to reopen North Carolina’s public schools?

And when they do reopen, possibly as early as Aug. 17, what will they look like?

What directives will school staffs, parents and students be given about protecting themselves against the contagious and deadly COVID-19?

There are no definitive or answers, for now.

Susan Gale Perry

But they’re coming, says Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

“Very, very, very quickly here, within the next week or so, we’re going to have to start getting some clarity on school guidance,” Perry said Thursday, noting that virus data will drive school reopening decisions.

Perry’s remarks were made to the House Select Committee on COVID-19 focused on educational issues.

The committee met remotely with Perry and school leaders to receive an update on the work being done by the Schools Reopening Task Force (SRTF) created to address the challenges of reopening schools.

David Stegall

David Stegall, state deputy superintendent of innovation, said absence any additional guidance from Gov. Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) activity at schools could begin to rev up as soon as next month.

“Things such as the end of the dead period for sports where athletes can start practicing and doing workouts and lifting and conditioning begins in June,” Stegall said.

Summer school, year-round schools, summer camps and teacher development programs would occur before traditional schools open in the fall, he said.

“Lots of stuff is happening and happening quickly and we want to make sure we’re giving as much guidance as possible,” Stegall said.

School buildings in the state have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. And many of the state’s nearly 1.6 million students are now learning from home.

Perry shared preliminary guidelines for reopening schools with lawmakers. She covered social distancing, cleaning/hygiene, monitoring the health of students and staff, protecting high-risk populations and educating students and staff about the virus.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done because while, I think we have some good ideas from the public health side, what is going to protect students and staff and considerations for high risk individuals and what the kinds of practical things are that need to be done, the implication for schools we realize are massive,” Perry said.

Requiring students and teachers to wear face masks is being considered.

“Obviously, there are many considerations around face coverings for children, particularly at different ages, their level of compliance or ability to wear them properly, making sure everyone has them,” Perry said.

NCDHHS and state education partners are also weighing what to do about athletics, managing staggered school schedules and lunches being served someplace other than lunchrooms, she said.

“There are a lot of logistical considerations,” Perry said. “We’re still vetting options because we have to take into consideration all of the practical realities.”

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chairs the House Select Committee’s on COVID-19 education group, asked about protocols to ensure the safety of exceptional children, some of whom are more susceptible to infection.

“We’re probably going to have to make some special arrangements and what kind of costs do we expect to incur,” Horn asked.

Beverly Emory, state deputy superintendent of district support, said experts are imbedded in work groups to advocate and to “give voice” to issues important for to medically fragile children.

“We are trying to get our arms around that as we look at these scenarios,” Emory said. “How they [eceptional children] participate needs to be as equitable as any other students in our system.”

State Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, asked if guidelines for school reopening would be tailored to fit individual school districts.

Blackwell said Avery County, where there are no confirmed cases of the virus, might not need the same strict guidelines as downtown Charlotte.

“Is DHHS going to make it possible to have variable standards and practices [for schools] based on the actual on the ground realities or are they going to continue their [statewide] policy of one-size fits all when it comes to what we must do?” Blackwell asked.

Perry said such a decision would be a joint one, made with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, NCDHHS, Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education and other parties about whether districts would have flexibility implementing safety guidelines.

“We understand that there are many differences across the state both in terms of how the public health data is playing out in this crisis and also in how schools are structured,” Perry said.




State Democrats file bill to place $3.9B bond referendum on November ballot

Several Democratic lawmakers filed a bill Thursday that would place a $3.9 billion bond for schools, colleges and universities, and water and sewer infrastructure  on the November ballot.

Under House Bill 1088, taxpayers would be asked to approve $2 billion for public schools to begin to address an estimated $8 billion in construction and renovation needs.

In addition to the $2 billion for schools, the lawmakers want to spend:

  • $800 million on water and sewer infrastructure.
  • $500 million on community colleges.
  • $500 million on the UNC system.
  • $100 million on the Museum of History and NC Zoo.

“2020 has seen the end of the longest economic expansion in history,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “Unfortunately, we failed to take advantage of this growth to adequately fund the infrastructure needs of our state, which are the true drivers of long-term economic growth. Instead, our legislature chose tax cut after tax cut.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat; Rep.Raymond E. Smith Jr.; a Waye County Democrat and Rep. Kandie Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County also co-sponsored the bill.

The $3.9 billion bond proposal mirrors one previously floated by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Last year, Republicans backed a pay-as-you-go plan approved by the House and Senate to pay for infrastructure needs. It was vetoed by Cooper.

Republicans backers of the pay-as-you go scheme argued that it would get money to school districts quicker and save more than $1 million in interest payments.

“It allows you to spend more money on where you would like for it to be spent,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said in 2019.

Democrats argued that the pay-as-you-go scheme would take money from the state’s general fund better spent on increasing teacher pay or fully funding the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As we approach a year with expected revenue shortfall, we must preserve every dollar in our general fund that we can, while still making sure we are able to fund our critical infrastructure needs,” Harris said.

Lawmakers expect state revenue shortfalls of between $2 billion and $4 billion because of the COVID-19 crisis, which closed the state’s economy.

North Carolina’s AAA bond rating from major rating agencies would allow the state to issue debt cheaper than nearly any other state, Harris said.

“This proposal begins to close the gap in our infrastructure needs, preserves our general fund for other pressing expenses, and the capital projects will be a job creator as our State’s economy begins to recover from the COVID19 crisis,” Harris said.

Higher Ed, Legislature, News

One year after UNC-Charlotte shooting, ads call out legislature for inaction on gun laws

One year after the campus shooting that killed two and injured four at UNC-Charlotte, gun safety advocates are launching a new online ad campaign to highlight the General Assembly’s failure to pass new gun laws.

“More than 1,300 North Carolinians have been shot and killed, and twice that wounded, in the year since gun violence shook UNC Charlotte to its core,” said Grace McClain, volunteer leader with the North Carolina chapter of Moms Demand Action, part of the national Everytown for Gun Safety organization. “The response from our lawmakers? Crickets. So with these new ads, we’re letting them know that their failure to act not only costs lives – it’ll cost them their seats, too.”

On Monday the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund launched a new digital video ad titled “A Year of Inaction” as part of a $250,000 campaign to push for stricter gun safety laws.

The ad will run on Facebook and is part of a $60 million effort to elect candidates who support stronger gun laws in November.

The ads will ask viewers to visit a site that allows them to sign on to a pledge to vote with gun safety in mind in November.

Most North Carolinians are already for stronger gun laws, the group said in a press release this week. It points to its poll, released in January, showing 79% of North Carolina voters in its survey support stronger gun laws. 

In the poll, 75% of respondents said they were less likely to vote for a candidate who supports allowing people convicted of domestic violence to own guns. Sixty percent also said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate  who opposes “red flag” laws that would allow police to confiscate weapons from those found by a judge to be an extreme danger to themselves or others. Nearly 70% said they were less likely to support a candidate who is against background checks for all gun sales.

Despite those numbers, new gun laws have gotten traction in the Republican dominated General Assembly.

Last year Democrats in the N.C. House again introduced new gun bills. Like all such bills they have introduced since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the bills didn’t even get a vote.