NC School Board Chair On the Scramble To Provide Hot Spots, Online Education

Mar 19, 2020

It’s now the fourth day public schools in North Carolina have been closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Eric Davis, the chairman of the state board of education, says the school system is doing everything it can to deliver instruction, but that the closure has highlighted inequities across the state in delivering distance learning to students.

Lisa Worf: It's only been three days that public schools have been closed at this point, but how is the state school system doing in responding to this crisis?

Eric Davis: Well, I think over the last three days, there's been a tremendous amount of heroic effort in school districts across our state, in the (Department of Public Instruction) team in Raleigh, responding to the governor's executive order to close their schools. I've seen such creative, thoughtful and effective decision making around moving quickly to respond to the closures. Teachers have risen to the occasion. Administrators are doing an awesome job. There are many questions that still need to be answered, and we're working hard on closing those gaps.

Worf: What are the biggest gaps you're seeing now?

Davis: Well, the biggest gaps in terms of instructional delivery are access to the internet. Many of our students don't have that in their homes or in their communities. There's also issues with providing enough devices. Not all of our districts are one to one, and so and so that's a challenge.

Worf: And on those fronts, how are efforts going on that?

Davis: Yeah, tremendous amount of effort. One is that we're finding ways to create hotspots. Something that's straightforward is deploying buses that have those devices, finding other means from providers to create hot spots. Also, there's some private providers that have stepped up and offered access. We can get the families to sign on to those services.

So, there's an array of efforts underway right now to extend broadband access and on devices, a similar effort of identifying those devices and trying to get them in the hands of students. There's also a lot of work that may not be yet evident to the public around teachers redesigning their lessons and moving them to a more digital format. There's a lot of work going on there.

Worf: What does that work look like at this point?

Davis: There are — as simple as videoing lessons so that they can be delivered through through a channel that the state setting up or shared among teachers. There's a part of our website — I don't know if it's up yet, but there will be soon — a place that teachers can go and both share their lesson plans and retrieve them. We're also looking at the potential for some providers to assist us in that.

Worf: You have a new emergency power now. If schools have to close for all or most of the rest of the school year, is there any way students will get a full year's education?

Davis: So, we're working on a number of strategies, one, to obviously continue the education during the school closure period, however long it lasts — it's up to the governor — and then potential strategies in case he makes a different decision. And so we're doing everything we can to deliver to students instruction. But we're aware that there are tremendous gaps in the system, in our ability to be able to deliver education services in this environment to all students. And we're factoring that into not only how do we close the gap, but in future decisions about how we operate the system.

Worf: So, if you can't deliver that full year's education, what are the options, then?

Davis: We're exploring those at this time. It's premature for me comment on what the specific options might be. But we're exploring all at this time.

Worf: Do you think North Carolina should continue with standardized testing this year? Those are the the tests used to grade schools.

Davis: Yeah. That's a decision we're weighing right now. We're looking at all aspects of that. I see real challenges in being able — with those challenges we just described — I see real challenges with being able to continue on the standard path of assessing our students at the end of the year. But we're in discussions with federal authorities on how to obtain what's necessary in order to obtain a waiver, and also talking with our state lawmakers.

Worf: What lessons have you learned so far in this scramble for the last week?

Davis: Well, it has clearly highlighted the inequities that we have across the state and being able to deliver distance learning to students and that we've got to, frankly, use this crisis as the means to close those gaps and provide access for all students. What I've also seen is just a tremendous effort of the members of our team taking care of students and taking each other all in the midst taking care of their own families. The resolve of North Carolinians to rise to the occasion is certainly admirable.

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