NC Superintendent creates task force to figure out what fall will look like

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina students aren’t returning to school this academic year -- but what about next fall?

The North Carolina State Department of Instruction and State Superintendent Mark Johnson are zeroing in on how to handle next school year.

"So we’re at the very early planning of this,” Johnson said in the one-on-one interview with Channel 9′s education reporter Elsa Gillis. “We need to socially distance for a long time before we have a vaccine, and that means socially distancing on a school bus, socially distancing in a classroom ...”

Johnson said we could see a scenario where some students physically go to school one day, while others stay at home and learn remotely and then they switch.

“It’s not going to look like a normal school year, but we want to make sure we get as many students as much time in the physical school building as we possibly can,” Johnson said.

He told Channel 9 that right now, leaders are moving into the proactive phase of their response to the coronavirus pandemic after having to react and scramble overnight to get remote learning up and running.

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Johnson is starting a task force with representation from the governor’s office, the State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction, key members of the general assembly, local school leaders, parents, teachers and students.

He said they’ll start looking at all the obstacles in the way of getting students back into the physical school building next year and make plans on how to overcome those obstacles.

One of their focuses will be improving remote learning, which he said could continue into next school year in some form.

“Everyone should know we are working to improve it, if heaven forbid we have another spike, which many of the health experts are saying is a possibility and we have to go back to remote learning, that’s something we should be prepared for," he said. "But also the way that we social distance in schools might mean that if you have the ability, there might be a day or two while you do remote learning while others go to the physical school building then you switch, and you get to go to the physical school building. No one’s happy about this. I mean this is very upsetting but it is our goal to be proactive and try to get to a better sense of normal than where we are now.”

Another topic state leaders and the task force will continue to examine is equity issues in education, something this period has further highlighted.

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He said there is concern there are still tens of thousands to over 100,000 students who still don’t have internet connectivity.

“The tens of thousands are the really difficult ones to reach because there are places in eastern and western North Carolina where, as you mentioned, you don’t even have enough cell phone surface to turn that into a hot spot," Johnson said. “So we are grateful, we’re just announcing that ATT and Google are donating money to the state of North Carolina. We’re going to put some hotspots on school buses and we’re actually going to be able to put out some more mobile hotspots but that’s still a big challenge,” Johnson says. “Those are things that we are logistically looking at over the course of the summer and that’s why it’s also important to get students back in the school building. It may not be every student every day but clearly that’s students that would better benefit from being in the physical school building.”

He said from a remote learning survey and working with school districts they’ve identified close to 300,000 students who didn’t have devices or internet connectivity.

“We’re mailing them packets, school buses are dropping off material but we know the learning loss from this is going to be disastrous, were very scared of that," Johnson said. "We’re looking at options for students who experience the most learning loss to actually have intensive courses before the school year starts, but again, that’s going to have to fall into the social distancing and that’s why its going to be really important to improve remote learning.”

Gov. Roy Cooper closed all schools in response to COVID-19 last month.