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How teachers are caught in the middle of NC virtual public school snafu

Update 9:07 a.m., August 8, 2019: State Superintendent Mark Johnson released the following statement about the solution to the layoffs at NCVPS. 

“The State Board and I appreciate the Office of State Human Resources and the State Controller’s Office agreeing to a solution to make sure that our Virtual Public Schools can operate as originally scheduled this fall. 

“Once we were made aware of the situation, we reached out to the Governor’s office and the legislature to come up with an option that would not require NC VPS teachers to lose teaching time, or students to lose course options. Now that we have an immediate solution in place, we look forward to working with our partners on a long-term solution.

“We appreciate the Governor’s team and the legislature’s support and assistance as we work through this transition.”

Update 4:13 p.m., August 7, 2019: A solution was found to prevent the lay off of 220 teachers at the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS). A press release from the NC Office of State Human Resources (OSHR) said that the state Department of Public Instruction will pay the NCVPS teachers through BEACON, the state’s HR-Payroll system, rather than through the OSHR division that does payroll for temporary state employees.

See below for original article and comments from teachers on the lay offs. 

Officials are nearing a fix to the temporary lay offs recently handed down to teachers at the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS), but affected teachers are still in limbo as they await the hoped-for intervention.

Last week, 220 teachers at the school found out they were temporarily out of a job for the fall semester because of a state law regarding temporary employees. The layoffs could affect about 150 classes and 7,300 students — not to mention the teachers — when the school year starts in a few short weeks. 

Since news broke about the layoffs, legislators and education officials have been working on a solution to keep NCVPS on track. An amendment to Senate Bill 295 would exempt the virtual public school teachers from the law temporarily. The bill passed its second reading on the House floor yesterday but has not yet had its final vote. That vote could come today.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said that a meeting was also held yesterday that included lawmakers and representatives from the governor’s office, the Office of State Human Resources (OSHR), the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), NCVPS, the State Board of Education, and others.

Horn said that even if Senate Bill 295 — which covers more than just the virtual public school — passes the House, there is no guarantee it will be taken up or passed by the Senate. And if it does make it out of the Senate, there’s no guarantee Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will sign it. Horn said the group got together yesterday to see what other options exist in case the bill does not succeed. 

He said that by the conclusion of the meeting, representatives from DPI and OSHR agreed there was another way to fix the problem in the short term absent a legislative solution. Horn said he was confident that this solution would be forthcoming, but that he can never be sure. 

“As a legislator, I will tell you that we get lots of people agreeing to things and they never happen,” he said. “Now, we do have options. We have agreed on a plan. Now it’s up to all the parties that agreed.”

A possible temporary workaround could be to hire the impacted teachers on personal service contracts, according to a letter sent Monday from the general counsel of the Office of State Human Resources to the general counsel of DPI.

If and when officials finally arrive at a a temporary solution, education leaders and others will still have to continue to work on a permanent fix.

NCVPS — open to high schools and participating middle schools —  is a resource for a variety of students, including those who may not have local access to classes that are hard-to-staff. The school had 51,950 course enrollments in the 2018-19 school year, 32,081 students enrolled, and is the second-largest state virtual school in the country. It is separate from the North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools.

With hope in sight, teachers may be able to rest easier, but as we found in a recent Reach NC Voices survey, the news of the layoffs has led to a tumultuous week for educators and others associated with the virtual public school. 

The 2017 NC Online Teacher of the Year Teryn Odom, an instructional leader and Spanish instructor with the North Carolina Virtual Public School, reached out to EdNC after taking the survey. To her, the news of the layoffs was devastating.

“This nightmare has become my reality and greatly affects me as one of the affected teachers, in addition to hundreds of other teachers,” she said in an e-mail. “It means tens of thousands of dollars less income for me/my family that we need and were expecting — with no time to plan and/or prepare accordingly.”

Odom said she has been working non-stop, contacting policy makers, education leaders, and others in hopes of finding a resolution. She even collected a series of personal stories and questions from virtual public school teachers which she sent to NCVPS leadership and Cecilia Holden, director of legislative and community affairs for the North Carolina State Board of Education.

Odom said that after talking to many education leaders, she is starting to feel optimistic that a solution is coming.

“I just hope that it happens with enough time for us to return to work with little to no impact on students, schools, and us/teachers. It has truly been one of the biggest dumpster fires that I’ve ever seen/experienced,” she wrote.

Susan Hudgins, an English I honors lead at NC Virtual Public School, also reached out via e-mail after taking the Reach survey. She was so concerned about what was happening that she sent an email to various people in DPI and state government. She wrote that the layoff announcement “floored” her and that she relies on the income she receives through the virtual public school to support her household.

Hudgins goes on to write that she used to work in the traditional public school system but left after years of frozen pay, fighting to be treated like a professional, and political machinations that didn’t focus on student needs.

“I stayed with NVCPS as I love teaching and I love my students. While at NCVPS we have also have had to deal with multiple pay cuts, and (as temporary employees) have never received benefits and have never been guaranteed a section, but we at least knew that if we received one we were valued and respected,” she wrote. “Now, I and I’m sure the other NCVPS teachers are understandably upset at such blatant disregard for our service.

“This is not something that just happened. Leadership knew it was an issue and knew change was coming, but instead of allowing the professionals who have been the backbone of this organization for all these years the opportunity to participate in any negotiations, we were instead blindsided.” 

According to WRAL, there has been some dispute about who knew what when, with spokespeople for the NC Office of State Human Resources and State Superintendent Mark Johnson arguing over whether the the virtual public schools were made aware of this issue back in May or more recently.

Regardless, with the recent announcement of the layoffs, teachers have been left scrambling. About 360 people responded to the Reach survey we sent out about the layoffs at the virtual public schools. More than 113 respondents left comments explaining how the layoffs would affect them without a solution. 

What you told us

Elizabeth Seastrunk said in a comment that she has taught every semester and summer for the virtual public school since 2008.

“I am able to reach students and assist students who may not have access to certain courses at their face-to-face school due to scheduling conflicts or the course not being offered,” she wrote. “I am more concerned for the students of our great state than myself. Please do something so our students have experienced, highly-qualified instructors this fall.” 

Multiple respondents said they are in the same situation as Odom and that they rely on the income from their job at the virtual public school. 

Natasha Wippel said she has worked as a public school teacher for 11 years, and 10 of those years were spent teaching for the virtual public school. She said the layoffs could put her family in dire straits. Her husband is a police officer and the flexibility of the school has allowed her family to grow and given her and her husband the ability to go to graduate school. 

“It was and is extremely scary to have received the notification last week that I will not be allowed to work this fall semester…” she wrote. “This would have a huge impact on my family’s income with little notice. We are welcoming our second child in about a month. We just purchased a home based on our planned income, and are planning on closing it next week.”

Elizabeth Swindell was particularly affected by how the layoffs were announced. 

“The manner in which the mandate was presented left hundreds of teachers with no choice and no recourse if this decision is upheld,” she wrote. “As an NCVPS teacher, I was notified just days ago that I would not be able to teach in the Fall based on something that none of us were at all privy to prior to this time.”

She went on in a comment on a second question to challenge the law that requires the temporary layoffs. 

“It is unfathomable why so many people who are just trying to do well by our state’s students and our students themselves are being punished by what feels like an arbitrary mandate,” she wrote. 

Here are the results of what else parents, teachers, and students of the NCVPS had to say in the Reach survey.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.