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NC Changes Rules So Virus Won't Block Class Of 2020 From Graduating

North Carolina's Board of Education changed some rules to allow the Class of 2020 to graduate on time amid the coronavirus pandemic.

How do you grade students who are learning from home, some of them without internet access, adult guidance or other means to keep up?

North Carolina's Board of Education on Friday directed teachers to focus on keeping in touch with students, making sure they’re OK and helping them make progress on academics during the next seven weeks, when schools are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But grading them doesn’t make sense unless you can ensure they have an equal shot at learning, state officials said.

"The department encourages local education agencies and charter schools to provide a variety of remote learning opportunities to engage all students, continue academic growth and respond to social and emotional needs," board member J.B. Buxton said. "It is paramount to remember the unprecedented conditions students are learning in, and to focus on engagement more than evaluation."

But one group of students got special attention at Friday’s emergency meeting: North Carolina’s 101,000 high school seniors.

"Our work group’s focus has been to graduate the Class of 2020," Sneha Shah-Coltrane told the board. "This senior class is in such unprecedented time that we want these students to have all the support possible to move into whatever their post-secondary plans are and to still graduate on time."

She's in charge of advanced learning and gifted education, and outlined grading options for the state board (read the approved recommendations here).

The board unanimously approved a special pass-or-withdraw grading system for seniors’ spring courses.

Seniors who had passing grades in those classes as of March 13, the last day schools were open, will get a special emergency “pass” grade that won’t count toward their GPA. Those who didn’t can withdraw without pulling down their GPA, or work toward passing if they need the credit to graduate. Options include virtual courses and credit recovery.

"Our intent here is that seniors are focused on passing courses, that the additional burden and stress of GPA and of grading in a traditional sense is lifted for them," Shah-Coltrane said.

The board also voted to ask the General Assembly to set aside a requirement that students complete a CPR class to graduate. Shah-Coltrane said almost 16,000 seniors haven’t done so and can’t do it safely now.

The board also reduced the number of work hours required for students with disabilities to graduate with an Occupational Course of Study diploma, and temporarily banned local districts from requiring more than the state minimum of 22 credits for a regular diploma.

For younger students, it mostly falls to local educators to figure out how to teach and encourage them – and maybe to grade them if they can return to school in May. Shah-Coltrane said distance learning won’t look the same everywhere.

"Yes, it could be a very sophisticated online platform," she said. "But it could also be a phone call. It could be a chat where the teacher is reading a book to the students."

For elementary school students, "we’re not focused on assigning grades, but rather focusing on supporting student progress and communicating feedback," Shah-Coltrane said.

Teachers can grade students in grades 6 to 11 on work done while schools are closed, but only if they’ve ensured that all students had access to the lessons and assignments.

"We will say that student grades should not be negatively impacted by this COVID-19 crisis," she added.

The state now has to relay this information to 115 school districts and about 200 charter schools. And Shah-Coltrane says if the pandemic continues long enough that schools must remain closed for the whole academic year, the state will need to come up with new guidance about grading and promotion to the next grade.

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