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In NC, Nine Weeks Of Closed Schools, Hundreds Of Decisions Left To Make

Rocks outside many schools bear messages about COVID-19 closing.

It wasn’t a surprise, but it was still kind of shocking: North Carolina students will have at least nine weeks carved out of their classroom time because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the best-case scenario, they could return on May 18 for a very truncated school experience.

Here’s what Governor Roy Cooper said when he announced his order Monday: "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. Therefore, today I will sign an executive order that closes our K through 12 public schools across North Carolina for in-person instruction until May 15."

What followed was less a plan than a promise to make a plan. Ever since the governor announced a two-week shutdown, schools and community partners have been scrambling to meet essential needs: Meals for kids who rely on school cafeterias. Emergency child care for workers who can’t stay home. Laptops and internet access for students who need them.

Now educators have to shift to long-term strategies, fast. State Superintendent Mark Johnson says he has already created teams to deal with essential questions, but many of the changes needed will require the General Assembly’s help: "Eliminating testing. Calendar flexibility. Educator and staff compensation. And making sure that if you are a student who was going to graduate with the Class of 2020 this June, that you still will be on track to graduate this June."

State officials say they want to keep all school employees on the payroll and working safely, often from home. But it’s not clear what that will look like.

They praised educators who have been creating online lessons, delivering packets to young students and finding ways to keep personal connections alive even without seeing their kids face-to-face. They said support for families will continue. But Johnson also signaled that a lot of the burden for the next several weeks of learning will fall to parents.

"We cannot treat this as a long break," Johnson said. "Your child does not have to master calculus at home but help keep them engaged in their learning."

He encouraged families to use resources shared by the state and by their children's schools -- but also to track private offerings, such as the free Kahn Academy classes offered online. Johnson said he and his wife are using those classes for their 7-year-old daughter.

So far, distance learning has meant voluntary lessons with no grades. Now that it has to fill the bulk of the school year, will students earn credit? Will schools be able to take attendance and ensure that students are doing their own work? Will students be promoted – and if so, will they be ready?

There were no answers Monday.

"There will be hundreds of decisions to make – and that probably underestimates it – as we redefine school this year and beyond," said Alan Duncan, vice chairman of the state Board of Education.

And Duncan acknowledged that not every district is equally ready to make digital learning work. "Inequities in local resources and digital access further complicate matters," he said.

In reality, even within districts and within schools, there are likely to be gaps in the ability of teachers to adapt to the new reality – and the ability of families to support their children.

It’s pretty clear there will be a lot less testing this year. The state has asked the federal government and the General Assembly to waive the exams that normally dominate the last few weeks of school. The global International Baccalaureate Organization pulled the plug on its exams Monday. The College Board, which administers Advanced Placement classes, is offering modified online exams that students can take from home.

But what happens when -- or if -- schools reopen in May? Duncan was vague on that.

"After a closure, we will want to return and spend time together, to finish the school year and to properly prepare for the next school term," he said.

And he made it clear that return will happen only if public health officials say it’s safe.

Duncan and Johnson repeatedly assured seniors that they’ll work to make sure they can graduate or move on to college or work. But whether the Class of 2020 will have caps to toss and a chance to hug their classmates one last time – that’s still up in the air.