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Perspective | It’s time to act and help mitigate the disruption to a ‘sound basic education’

It’s time for the governor and North Carolina General Assembly to take bold and decisive action in response to the unprecedented disruption the coronavirus will have on the state’s constitutional requirement to provide a “sound basic education.” North Carolina district superintendents, charter directors, and statewide education officials need clarity in order to respond effectively to this crisis and manage the mounting stress felt by parents, teachers, and most importantly, students. Here’s five ways to give it to us:  

  • Extend the two-week closure another month to sometime in late April or indefinitely and tell everyone to prepare for more than a month without access to a traditional school setting. Name the rest of this week and next a mandated statewide spring break for all students with no required academic work. We need to be realistic about the challenge ahead of us. We will not be back in school in two weeks, and it’s a distraction to entertain this possibility. Additionally, districts and charter schools need to be able to momentarily hit the pause button to allow us time to transition effectively to entirely new models of instructional delivery. Just give us two weeks off to plan and parents and kids to develop their new normal. 
  • Approve a wholescale waiver of the regular school calendar that allows at-home learning days to replace the regular school days. Districts and charter schools should be required to submit their preliminary at-home learning plans to DPI on March 27th for approval and feedback. Districts and charters currently feel paralyzed because we aren’t sure what will count as instructional time. We need to dispense now with our previous notions of days and hours and embrace a more fluid criteria for learning, which will immediately catalyze higher quality innovation in the field. Teachers and other non-exempt staff must be assured they will be paid regularly to design at-home learning and discouraged from seeking other work. Otherwise, we will face a massive teacher shortage next fall when smart, tech-savvy teachers have all gotten jobs that paid them to work from home. 
  • Cancel all state required testing including EOGs, and EOGs for the 2019-2020 school year. Suspend the 3rd Grade Read to Achieve Act. Instruct schools to begin considering promotion and retention decisions in the absence of state-issued standardized tests. Suspend School Report Card grading for the 2019-2020 year. We need to remove the looming stress of standardized testing from the collective psyche of all educators and kids. Even on the highly unlikely possibility we return to school in April, the data simply will not be equitable. Despite our best efforts, the at-home learning environment will ultimately be “separate but unequal,” largely dependent on economic class, home language, job status, and education level of parents. We need to name this equity issue up-front and not allow our zeal for standards and accountability to outweigh common sense.
  • Order an infusion of funds to the state run North Carolina Virtual Public School that allows this state-run virtual public school to partner with local school districts and charters to support increased use of its courses and systems. Many North Carolinians probably don’t know we have this incredible resource right at our fingertips. It’s time to ramp up their capacity.
  • Pass a bill that directs local internet providers (Spectrum, AT&T, Frontier, etc.) to aggressively install wireless internet systems in the homes of any family that currently receives free lunch and does not already have internet. Spectrum has already offered to do this for 60 days. The state should be willing to pay for these services if necessary. In a few weeks, reliable internet will become as important to equal access to education as yellow school buses and hot lunch. Let’s aggressively make this happen so that school superintendents and charter directors can focus on education and not hotspot installation. 

Governor Cooper should immediately call the General Assembly back to Jones Street to act on these measures. If fears of spreading illness make this an impossibility, they should either vote via conference call or the Governor should execute these steps under the emergency declaration. The time is now to confront the brutal reality of our circumstances and act. We should not wait for the U.S. Department of Education guidance on these matters. If the federal government can’t get hospitals supplied with items as basic as test kits, respirators, or face masks, we shouldn’t expect them to come through with viable solutions for the complex challenges our schools will face in coming months.

It’s time for North Carolina leaders to rally all of us around the common goal of supporting the learning of all students in a time of intense uncertainty.

It’s time to seize this moment of disruption to innovate in ways that will have positive impacts on children far into the future.

It’s time for our leaders to live by the motto of Esee Quam Videri, and be, rather than to seem. Let’s do this.  

Alex Quigley

Alex Quigley is chair of the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board and principal at Healthy Start Academy in Durham.