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Alternative Education

With schools across the state out of session until at least May 15, education leaders have had to work to figure out a number of ways to continue to provide for their students. The North Carolina Board of Education recently approved several measures that would help make that job easier.

According to a press release from the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), grading policies will be adjusted to help ensure high school seniors are able to graduate on time.

The state board also approved guidance for districts and schools to encourage remote teaching and learning while also recognizing the challenges that many students and families face without digital access, especially in rural areas.

Under the new policy this year, “local schools and districts cannot require students to earn any more than the state’s minimum of 22 credits in order to graduate” even though many districts already had requirements that exceeded the state minimum. Students may be allowed, however, to pursue more credits.

Students walk to class at Central Elementary School in Jackson earlier this year. Schools statewide have been closed since March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo by Holly Taylor

All students, including seniors, will receive grades for their fall courses which will be factored into their grade point averages. But for spring courses, seniors will receive either a Pass (“PC19”) or a Withdrawal (“WC19”) based on their learning through March 13, the last day classes were in session.

Seniors who had an F in a class needed for graduation requirements will be provided with different remote learning opportunities in order to improve to a passing grade. These opportunities include participating in remote learning in their school district, enrolling in NC Virtual Public School for applicable courses, participating in a credit recovery program, or passing a locally-developed assessment on topics covered through March 13.

For younger students, the remote learning emphasis will be on student engagement over evaluation, and allows schools to evaluate student performance in grades K-5 or assign grades for students in grades 6 though 11 only if a class or course meets a number of conditions, including equitable access, consistent communication between the teacher and students and evidence of student learning.

A subsequent press release from NCDPI also noted an initiative with UNC-TV to help enhance remote learning opportunities. The public television station will provide resources for preschoolers through high schoolers through online streaming or broadcasts on the North Carolina Channel. For more information about what will be available through this initiative, visit unctv.org/athomelearning

In addition to these changes for students, the State Board of Education also approved measures to assist school districts in funding flexibility and paid-leave policy for employees.

A total of $50 million was approved to be distributed to districts across the state with exact amounts to be determined by a formula based on enrollment and a county’s low-wealth designation. This funding is to be used to support things such as school nutrition, school-based childcare, cleaning and sanitization, protective equipment, or remote learning.

Staff who cannot work remotely, have child-care or elder-care needs, are at high risk of COVID-19, or meet other qualifications will be able to receive pay thanks to the State of Emergency Leave policy also approved by the State Board of Education. It will cover up to 168 hours for the period between April 1 through April 30.

Locally, Roanoke-Chowan area school districts have had to figure out how to follow the guidelines issued by the state while they continue to educate their students outside of the classroom.

Dr. Pamela Chamblee, Superintendent of Northampton County Schools, said they are working hard to help both students and staff.

“We are providing students with an opportunity to engage with the assignments and complete various modules in the curriculum rather than focusing on evaluations and allowing evaluations to drive the process,” she explained.

For seniors, she said their school counselors are currently working to audit senior transcripts to ensure they all have the minimum 22 credits required for graduation.

“Although COVID-19 has created challenges, we are in communication with staff to determine if any related issues require the 168 hours of emergency paid leave and where it may apply,” she continued. “The promised additional funding from the state will be used to cover COVID-19 related expenses incurred throughout this ordeal.”

“Through it all, we are optimistic that our students and staff will continue to be resilient and work through these unexpected challenges,” Chamblee concluded.

Hertford County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. William Wright said the district is using a “blended learning” method, a combination of electronic instruction and written packets.

“At this time, we are certain that this work will count towards state requirements for classroom hours, etc. Moreover, we have every expectation that this work being done has value in preparing our students for the next grade,” Dr. Wright stated.

The assignments, he said, are graded by the teachers once they receive the returned work, whether it is delivered electronically or by packet. Each school is managing the delivery and return process of written packets individually.

“There have not been any standards relaxed from the state in terms of grading,” Dr. Wright noted. “There is talk about end of grade and end of course testing being canceled, but that has not been finalized. Most of those decisions and the specifics of them will remain the decision of the individual school district. In Hertford County, we will work to ensure that our students meet success for their efforts in this crucial time.”

He did stress that one of the biggest challenges HCPS faces revolves around its ability to serve students in some of the county’s more rural areas.

“Our research shows that approximately 30-plus percent of our students don’t have access to the internet,” Wright advised. “This of course makes remote learning difficult at best. Moreover, in some communities, our professionals also lack internet coverage. We’re working through this right now by providing written packets, of course, but moving forward, we will need strong support to make the internet accessible for all.”

He added that if the school year is delayed further, HCPS would have no other choice but to postpone graduation.

“My personal opinion is that, if possible, I’d like to set an alternative date to ensure that we have some form of a traditional graduation for our students as opposed to some sort of virtual graduation which will limit the personal touch of commencement exercises,” Dr. Wright said. “However, we must look at the safety aspects of such. But I would love to still have a traditional graduation for our three high schools if possible.

Another challenge for HCPS is while they are serving over 900 meals each day, they know there are some children who are missing out on that daily dose of nutrition.

“Also, I continue to be concerned about the exposure from a safety perspective for our child nutrition employees each day. However, I am most appreciative and am in awe of the attention to excellence that ALL of our employees essential and non-essential are paying to ensuring that the quality of life of our students and staff is impacted positively,” Sr. Wright concluded.

Teachers in Bertie County are using Google Classroom or Canvas to connect with students who have Internet access; they prepare paper packets weekly for students without online access.

A comprehensive Remote Learning Google Site was launched March 30 for those who can access education online. Meanwhile, “Park-and-Learn” Wi-Fi sites are coming soon to school parking lots and local businesses and churches. A complete list will be posted on the Bertie County Schools website and Remote Learning Google Site, once the devices are up and running.

“We are trying every avenue possible to reach as many students as we can socially and emotionally, academically, and to make sure kids still have access to two meals daily during this pandemic—school is still in session, although teachers and students are not in the school buildings,” stated Dr. Otis Smallwood, Bertie County Public Schools Superintendent.

Like many rural areas of the state where internet access is “hit-or-miss”, Dr. Smallwood said Bertie County Schools will provide assignments and give feedback and guidance for students who are able to participate in remote learning.

If an Early College student cannot complete the community college courses, he/she may be dropped from the college course, and it will not be held against them for high school graduation, GPA or financial aid.

“This COVID-19 pandemic is scary and stressful to all people on some level,” Dr. Smallwood stressed. “We are definitely in uncharted waters. Aside from the obvious challenge of continuing to educate children remotely, and with the uncertainties of the virus aside, there have been so many silver linings as we think outside the box, get creative and grow as educators and public servants.

“I have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement that our staff, school board, and community have given to me, to one another, to their students and parents,” Dr. Smallwood continued. “Positive relationships are at an all-time high and we know that relationships are one of the many tenets that are needed for a successful school district. I am encouraged by the overwhelming support of the parents in our community. They are making sure kids have access to the work and actually doing the work while at home. Although we are in uncertain times, we know we can only take one day at a time, and know that better times are ahead. There is always a silver lining after every dark cloud.

“We have pulled together as a family, and the very best of Bertie is present and actively helping to build this plane as we fly it. For that, I am eternally grateful,” he closed.