RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper announced on April 24 that schools will remain closed for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year and students will continue with remote instruction.

Watauga County Schools will end the school year on May 29, and students will not return to the schools for in-person classes until the start of next school year. Superintendent Scott Elliott stated that he made the decision to shorten the school year for WCS to allow teachers more time to wrap up the current year and begin preparations for the 2020-21 school year.

Elliott explained that May 29 will be the date when WCS will have surpassed the minimum of 1,025 hours of instruction needed as required in state law. Days that were added to the end of the school calendar as make up for snow days are factored into this decision, as the school year would’ve ended on May 22 with no days missed for snow, he said.

Cooper’s announcement was made in consultation with the state board of education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. School Board Chairman Eric Davis said the executive order announced on April 24 reinforces the state’s four initial responses to the challenge of closing schools. These initial responses include the health and safety of students and staff; ensuring that children and their families have access to nutritious meals; maintaining student and teacher relationships to provide support for children; and keeping students engaged in remote learning.

“School classrooms may be closed, but the learning is not over,” Cooper said during his announcement. “We don’t make this decision lightly, but it’s important to protect the health and safety of our students and school staff.”

Elliott said while he is proud of the hard work from teachers and students during remote learning, school officials know it has not been the same as regular in-person education at school.

“Our teachers have worked hard to keep students engaged, but we have not been able to cover a significant amount of the curriculum,” Elliott said. “We will need to make adjustments next year to help get everyone caught up. We are sad that students are also missing out on class trips, sports and many extracurricular clubs and activities. We look forward to those activities resuming as soon as possible.”

WCS teachers will have required work days from June 1-5 and optional work days from June 8-11 — this allows the school system to reach the required 215 teacher days of work. Teachers may continue to work remotely or from the school site during the work days, according to Elliott.

Elliott said that WCS has not had to furlough employees or reduce staffing due to the pandemic. A small number of part-time employees did choose to apply for unemployment rather than be reassigned to new duties, and some staff members chose to be placed on paid leave due to specific health conditions or concerns, he said.

Parents were asked to visit the K-8 schools on Tuesday, April 28 to return any printed learning materials and to pick up the next set of materials.

Elliott said the state board of education passed a policy earlier this week for how students will be graded.

“It reinforces for us that our focus for remote learning will continue to be engagement, mitigation of learning loss for standards taught through March 13, and some form of closure for students and teachers for this year,” Elliott said. “We want students to remain as connected to school as possible and achieve as much mastery of content taught prior to March 13 as possible.”

When asked how many students across the state were not currently engaged with remote learning, Davis said that an estimated 300,000 students in NC schools could benefit from having a Chomebook or other device to continue their studies. He added that schools continue to teach students through both digital and non-digital means. Cooper noted a partnership between the state and AT&T in which the provider agreed to supply 100 wifi hotspots to use in school buses to help students without home internet access; a similar partnership was reached with Duke Energy Foundation that is providing 80 wifi hotspots.

Elliott said WCS plans to host a graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 30, at Watauga High School for the Class of 2020. Elliott said that the celebration “will look different from a traditional graduation ceremony” due to the current restrictions on mass gatherings. School officials are still finalizing details, but the celebration will be a drive-in or drive-through style event.

An “adopt a senior” Facebook campaign started on April 26 in support of Watauga High school seniors. Photos of Class of 2020 WHS students have been posted to the social media page, and requests that a community member “adopt them.” The adoption means that the community member would agree to send the senior a card, gift basket or another type of gift to recognize their achievement. To participate in the adopt a senior campaign, visit www.facebook.com/groups/246574780088796 or search for Adopt a Senior 2020- Watauga High School on Facebook.

The WCS student nutrition team was projected to serve more than 100,000 meals from March 16 through the end of the day on April 24.

The free meal program for children ages 18 and under is planned to continue as long as WCS can afford to operate the program. Elliott said the meals will likely be distributed probably into the summer and well past May 29 when the school year ends.

The WCS curriculum team along with principals will soon share plans for how the school system will address the learning of content for the last nine weeks when school resumes in August, according to Elliott.

“From the very beginning of all this our priorities have remained focused on the health and safety of employees, keeping students engaged through remote instruction, and providing meals to children,” Elliott said in a message to faculty and staff. “While this has taken several twists and turns since March 13, you have handled these challenges with both grace and flexibility. Please continue to take care of yourselves and let me know if there is anything you need.”

Cooper said when school operations resume in August, it will not be “business as usual” as the state is planning to put in place new health protection measures.

“This pandemic will be with us for some time, but I have every confidence that we will find a way to open schools safely in the new school year,” Cooper said. “The opening of schools in the summer and fall, and the availability of summer camps, are going to depend on meeting health guidelines that will be established later.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said proactive work will continue to be done to plan for the 2020-21 school year that will be bipartisan involving the governor, state board, N.C. General Assembly, local education leaders as well as parent, teacher and student advisors. Johnson said he’ll be announcing more on the proactive plan the following week.

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