Questions on teacher pay, instruction hours as NC schools shutdown

Students at Needham B. Broughton High School in Raleigh. Monday, August 28, 2017. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Last Saturday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper released Executive Order No. 117 effectively closing all public schools in North Carolina for two weeks amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Many school districts, though, were left frustrated by the timing of the announcement and clarity of directions provided by state officials.

The answers school districts were getting from the state “are about as clear as mud,” the superintendent of Stanly County Schools, Dr. Jeff James, told NSJ. “We’re waiting for the governor to clarify several questions that were asked [March 15].”

One major concern is how teachers will be compensated during the shutdown.

“There’s no clear direction on how to go about paying teachers,” James said

In Stanly County, they are declaring teacher workdays throughout the shutdown as this will allow them to pay the staff. James said the other option they considered was asking teachers to use their annual leave. But the district didn’t want to force teachers to use up an earned benefit.

A top official in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who wished to remain anonymous, said their district had similar problems. After pushing the state hard for three days, “We could not get anyone to approve our online plan so teachers could get paid.”

Another source of frustration was the quick change of direction on whether the state was going to require the schools to close down. As late as Friday afternoon, superintendents were hearing they would not be, then a day later, without much warning, the governor released the executive order to close public schools.

Some districts, like Orange County Schools, had already decided to close and keep students at home. Last Thursday, the district sent a message to parents saying they would be closed until at least April 3.

“While the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is not recommending pre-emptive closure of schools and childcare centers at this time, we believe this decision is in the best interest of our families, students and staff,” OCS said in their message to parents.

Many districts had anticipated that an announcement would be made Friday, giving them the weekend to come up with a plan for the next week. But it instead came toward the end of the day on Saturday.

“We could have started Monday with e-learning if we had known Friday,” James said. “So what it’s done is put us several days behind.”

E-learning is one way many districts are trying to keep their students from falling behind and to keep from having to make up days at the end of the year. If a school has an approved e-learning plan, it may be able to count these learn-from-home days as days of instruction. Stanly County is one that has an approved remote platform that it created to avoid losing instructional days during snow days, flooding or other emergencies.

“If the governor comes out and says we have to make it up, we’re not making it up, because all I have to do is make up 1,025 hours of instruction,” James said on moving forward with online learning. “At that point, our school year is over. So my goal is to not have kids do two more weeks of school.”

The CMS official said their district will also be able to cover e-learning but that “75% of the state can’t do distance learning. They lack technology and Wi-Fi bandwidth.”

Another issue districts are trying to manage is how to continue feeding the students who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch. Cooper, in his press statement, said he established an Education and Nutrition Working Group to oversee the process.

“I am standing up this new working group to ensure that children have enough food to eat, families have care in safe places for their young children, and student learning continues,” Cooper said in the release.

In many counties, school buses are being used to drop off meals at the normal bus stops.