Schools across North Carolina will remain closed through May 15 in hopes of stemming the coronavirus pandemic, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced Monday.
Parents, teachers and school leaders were bracing for the likelihood of an extended school closure — one that stretched well beyond the initial two-week hiatus — given the rapid escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Figuring out how to keep students engaged for two months, as opposed to just two weeks, won’t be easy, however.
Last week, teachers pulled off the Herculean task of preparing two-weeks of lesson plans, while school administrators coordinated a massive operation to distribute laptops and work packets for students to continue learning from home. That now seems like a lifetime ago.
“There are hundreds of decisions to be made as we move together through uncharted waters,” Haywood Superintendent Bill Nolte said. “This is an evolving situation. In the meantime, be calm, kind, smart and safe.”
Over the past week, students and parents have been settling in to the new normal of home-based learning, with around three to four hours of school work daily. Middle and high school students are doing all their work on laptops, while elementary students are relying more heavily on paper packets augmented with additional computer assignments.
Luckily, Haywood County students were already intimately familiar with computer-based instruction. Teachers use a platform called Google Classrooms for every aspect of school work — including making and checking homework assignments, posting study materials, and giving tests and quizzes.
Teachers are using the Google Classroom portal to post each day’s assignments, along with videos to help students stay connected — from math tutorials to simply reading a storybook aloud. Families without internet access at home, however, must find a way to connect to WiFi and download their assignments to then do off-line from home. WiFi is available 24-7 from any school parking lot.
“We already have plans in place to provide remote education. In the coming days, we will provide additional information to teachers and other school staff to enhance our educational plans and procedures,” Nolte said.
Teachers have had the option of working from their empty classrooms or from home until now. Starting Wednesday, however, teachers have been instructed to work from home as a matter of course. If teachers need to come onto campus to retrieve materials from their classroom, or to meet in small groups with other teachers to coordinate grade-level lesson plans, they must first notify the principal.
Many of the decisions to be made in coming days will hinge on directives coming down from the state level.
One thing is already clear: standardized end-of-year testing won’t be happening this year.
Other things yet to be hashed out include:
• Whether the school year will resume at some point in the summer or be written off.
• How to handle grading and course credits for the remainder of the year.
• Graduation requirements for seniors and the transfer of college credits.
• How to determine whether students should be held back or promoted to the next grade.
“Please be patient as we wait on additional detailed information from the state,” Nolte said.
Another question awaiting state guidance is employee pay. While teachers are still being paid to facilitate home-based learning for students, it is unclear what will happen with hourly school employees, like custodians and teacher’s assistants.
Some cafeteria workers are still coming to work every day to prepare the thousands of breakfasts and lunches being provided free to any child between the age of 1 and 18. The free meal program, which has no income requirement, has been profoundly popular amid wide-spread financial uncertainty.
On Monday, 6,752 meals were distributed through a combination of drive-by pick-up lines and delivery at school bus stops — representing more than 3,300 children receiving a breakfast and lunch.
“We deeply appreciate child nutrition staff, bus drivers, teacher assistants, and other staff members who made it possible to distribute food to children in our community,” Nolte said. “Their work in providing this critical frontline service has been amazing.”
Shining Rock Classical Academy, a K-8 charter school that operates independently from Haywood County Schools, has likewise enacted home-based learning and meal distribution for its students. Head of School Joshua Morgan is hosting a weekly live video address via Facebook every Tuesday evening to keep families informed.
“An open dialogue across our entire community is going to be the most effective means for everyone to remain informed in this fast evolving landscape,” Morgan said.