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State: NC Schools Need To Get Better At Remote Learning By August

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A CMS employee delivers a laptop to help with remote learning.

Even after students return to classes Aug. 17, remote learning is going to be a big part of their education, North Carolina officials say.

A plan approved at Thursday's state Board of Education meeting calls for schools to use in-person class days to prepare students for better use of online learning when that's needed. While August plans remain unclear, students may end up alternating between home and classrooms to allow for more distance. Schools are also preparing to return to return to full-time remote lessons if COVID-19 resurges.

State officials praised the work educators did to convert quickly when the coronavirus forced schools to close in mid-March. But as Vanessa Wrenn of the Department of Public Instruction put it, it's time to prepare "a more thoughtful, developed remote learning implementation."

The General Assembly requires all districts and charter schools to file a remote-learning plan by July 20. On Thursday the board said those plans must include methods of training staff and students, taking attendance and grading work.

And the plans must address how schools will serve students with disabilities, gifted students, English learners and homeless students.

Broadband Gap Is Crucial

Sneha Shah-Coltrane of DPI told the board that superintendents "remain incredibly concerned at the continued issues of broadband issues for both students and staff."

The state wants districts to outline plans for working with community partners to provide broadband access and technology for all students. But board Chair Eric Davis of Charlotte said it's not enough to rely on donors and school districts.

"Reliable, speedy and affordable broadband service is so critical to the education of our students" and should be considered "just like electricity and clean water and sewer, an absolute necessity in terms of a utility for every home in North Carolina," Davis said.

"The private sector will not fill this gap," Davis said. "The capitalism environment which serves us so well doesn't fill this gap, and it's upon us as a state ... that the state take the lead" in getting statewide access. 

Reach The Missing Kids

The state's plan says schools must work with students and parents to develop their remote learning plans. But principal advisor Matthew Bristow-Smith said it's not enough to poll the families who are engaged.

"Reach out into the communities. Find those children that we lost in March, April and May of this year," Bristow-Smith said. "Find out why we lost them, and what we can do to bring them back into the loop."

It's hard to tally how many students simply stopped learning after March 15, but it's clearly tens of thousands. 

In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey of educators across the country, teachers reported an average of 23% of their students as "essentially truant" since schools closed, doing little or nothing from home. Those numbers rose with the poverty levels of schools (breakdowns for North Carolina are not available).

North Carolina has more than 1.5 million public school students. A "truancy" rate of even 20% would mean more than 300,000 lost several weeks of learning this year.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.