Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Students in Macon County—and across North Carolina – can expect changes to the school calendar this fall as a result of COVID-19, the pandemic that caused schools to abruptly close this year. While Governor Roy Cooper has said returning to the classroom in the Fall will depend on how the virus statistics add up at that time, state legislators have passed laws amending how the school calendar is handled.
Senate Bill 704, which was signed by the governor on Monday, mandates that all public schools reopen Aug. 17 – and add five days to the school year. The included mandate overrides school board decisions and takes away the flexibility normally granted to charter schools.
The school calendar in North Carolina is a debate each and every year in the state capital with a balancing act to please coastal educational institutes who rely on students for work in the tourism industry, and mountain institutes who struggle with weather delays and cancellations during the regular school year.
The current calendar was the latest attempt to standardize the summer break with a late August opening and an early June close. But local variations mean the new plan could mean big adjustments.
For instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) approved an Aug. 31 start in 2020 to avoid traffic and distraction from the Republican National Convention, which falls during the first week of class in the standard North Carolina calendar. Assuming the in-person convention goes ahead as planned, CMS will either have to seek a waiver from the new mandate or start in-person classes Aug. 17 and go to remote learning the following week.
For Macon County, school officials have to consider the winter months which often result in classes being cancelled due to inclement weather. The current calendar allows the first semester of school to be completed prior to the winter break, so testing can be done before students leave school for break. Keeping testing close to the actual instruction is more beneficial to students than expecting them to undergo testing after being out of school for weeks over the holiday break.
The COVID-19 bill says public schools must have 190 days of class this year, up from 185. The additional days were suggested to be used to help measure students at the beginning of the school year to determine the appropriate grade level for individual students since so much instruction was lost this year.
Another blow to achievement in the state, the bill cancels this year’s Read To Achieve summer reading camps, which are normally required for some third-graders to be promoted. The bill also lifts the requirement that third-graders earn a grade-level reading score on year-end exams to be promoted because the exams have been waived this year. While the normal summer program will be cancelled, the bill provides $70 million for schools to implement a voluntary summer program deemed a “jump-start” program for K-4 students who are at risk of falling behind.
While some parents might be looking forward to the fall for school to continue to put the days of remote learning behind them, they shouldn’t celebrate too soon. The General Assembly has mandated to give scheduled remote learning days in the next calendar year and that each district or charter school plan submit a remote learning plan by July 20.
In addition to legislative changes approved by state leaders this week – the state also voted on how to distribute the federal CARES Act dollars allocated to N.C.
The package includes nearly $1.6 billion in relief measures related to public health and safety, educational needs, small business assistance, and continuity of state government operations. In North Carolina, $1.4 billion has been allocated and $150 million is set aside for future local government needs.
The spending package includes:
$50 million to provide personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies
$25 million to support enhanced COVID-19 testing and tracing
$125 million in small business loans administered through the Golden LEAF Foundation
$50 million in health support for underserved communities including rural areas and minority communities
$95 million to support North Carolina hospitals
$20 million to support local health departments and the State Health Lab
$75 million for school nutrition programs
$70 million for summer learning programs
$30 million for local schools to purchase computers and other devices for students
$6 million for food banks
$9 million for rural broadband
$85 million for vaccine development, antibody testing, community testing, and other COVID-19-related research