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Rules For Reopening NC Schools Are Delayed A Week -- And May Leave Gaps

Educators and families across North Carolina have been anxiously awaiting state guidance on how to reopen schools safely on Aug. 17. On Thursday, state Board of Education Chair Eric Davis said they'll have to wait one more week.

Davis said a report from the Department of Health and Human Services was pulled from the agenda after superintendents, teachers and others reviewed a draft and said it needs work.

Superintendent Mark Johnson agreed.

"While many have been expecting a defined list of requirements, it appears many of the substantive guidelines around social distancing and face coverings and remote learning may be more of recommendations come August," Johnson said.

If that's the case, he said the state could be looking at "115 unique plans for the 115 unique public school districts we support" -- not to mention roughly 200 charter schools.

The General Assembly has mandated a return to in-person classes Aug. 17, requiring virtually every school district to redo academic calendars approved months ago.

Most educators agree that, in the words of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Elyse Dashew, "there is really nothing quite like learning and teaching in person, with the human interaction of being physically present in a classroom together."

But as eager as people may be to return to that setting, there's also widespread agreement that schools need new systems of distancing, sanitation and other protection from the coronavirus. 

Davis promised that at a special called meeting on June 11, the state board will release "one single, combined document that incorporates the best thinking of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Public Instruction and this board, in consultation with the governor’s office."

But that leaves out one big player: the General Assembly.

At the CMS board's May 26 meeting, Dashew said districts need permission from state lawmakers to have the kind of flexibility needed to go beyond a traditional structure. The state provides most of the money for public education and sets rules on attendance and time in class. Major changes, such as allowing families to opt for remote learning or creating schedules where students attend on alternating days, might not comply with existing laws.

In late May, state Rep. Craig Horn said lawmakers are waiting for the Board of Education to speak up on whether any statutory changes are needed. Horn, who chairs the House education committee, said even this week would be challenging because the deadline for new bills had already passed.

"If you've got a new bill -- sorry! Too late," he said. The options, he said, include "a legislative gimmick" where lawmakers find a bill that has passed one house but stalled in committee in the other. They can then strip the original content and add something new, like education flexibility.

Horn said he hoped to hear from state education leaders quickly, especially given uncertainty about how long the General Assembly will be in session.

"Don't come to me two days before we're going to adjourn and say, 'Oh, we've gotta have this bill,'" Horn said. "People do it all the time, and I tend to say no." 

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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.