Some parents are still on the fence and are continuing to weigh their options when it comes to in-person learning or instruction from home for the fall.
Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement on July 14 that North Carolina public schools will be open for both in-person and remote learning in the fall under the state’s Plan B. For Watauga County Schools this means using a 2x3 flex-type schedule in which students will be in the school building for two days at school and three days of learning remotely. WCS stated that there is typically not a deadline for registration for enrollment for in-person learning.
WCS is also offering an all-remote option through the Watauga Virtual Academy “for every student possible,” said WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott. The virtual academy application process will be open from July 16-26. For more information on the virtual academy and to apply, visit www.wataugaschools.org/coronavirus.
“We really will not know until we see how many students apply for the virtual academy and whether or not we have enough teachers to match the grade levels and subjects to meet all the needs,” Elliott said.
Some parents have indicated that they may choose to transition their students into homeschool programs.
Emily Wilson said wrestling with the decision of whether or not to send her 15-year-old daughter back to Watauga High School for the fall has been the very definition of a dilemma. Wilson said she feels like there are still so many questions that are unanswered that she can’t make a firm decision yet, such as how teachers will be protected in the schools and what happens if those in the school need to quarantine.
“It’s such a complex situation that there really are no good choices,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to be possible for everyone to get the scenario that they’re most comfortable with. That’s the reality of the pandemic.”
Catharine Milner said she too feels that there isn’t a solution that is not stressful. She has a 7-year-old son with Autism who attends Hardin Park, and said most of the goals in his individual education plan are for his social wellbeing. She’s unsure how he’ll get the same social experiences while learning from home.
Milner mentioned how many parents were apprehensive about sending their children to school because of the mandated mask wearing by all K-12 students and all school personnel. She’s been trying to practice wearing a mask with her son, but said after a while he wants to touch the mask and play with it. Her son also enjoyed remote learning as he enjoyed the quiet while being at home.
Working from home while also trying to help a child learn from home can be difficult, Milner said. She added that sometimes remote learning could be frustrating because Zoom calls could be at inconvenient times, and parents tend to need to be with the younger children while using Zoom with their teachers. Milner works as a preschool director and also has a 3-year-old.
“There were times that I was on a phone call for work, and trying to get him to read out loud to his teacher on the computer,” Milner said.
While her son’s teachers were “phenomenal” last school year, Milner said homeschooling would offer the ability for her family to go at their own pace and do school work during times that were best for them. While she still was leaning toward sending her son for in-person learning at school, Milner said she was going to wait at least a few weeks to make a final decision after seeing what other families were choosing — at that time she was going to trust her intuition.
Kelly Broman-Fulks said she hasn’t made decisions lightly about what to do about her three children’s education in the fall, and that it’s been a deeply personal decision. Her concern is that a member of her family has a health condition, and COVID-19 could increase the chance of a serious complication for that family member. However, she said she’s grieving as a parent because her children are approaching formative years of school at Parkway School and Watauga High School — kindergarten, eighth grade and 12th grade.
“Those first days of school for these milestone years are not going to be what I have imagined,” Broman-Fulks said. “I’ve been so burdened by my kids having an in-person school experience for these monumental years. But at what cost? Does the risk of a serious complication from COVID-19 outweigh missing experiences with in-person school? It’s been difficult.”
Broman-Fulks said everyone’s needs and family situations are different, and no one plan will work for each family. She urged families to listen to each other with care and concern during this time, and said “it’s hard for all of us.” Wilson acknowledged how many parents are struggling during this time, and there are many who feel like “they’re failing at everything.”
“If you’re trying to work from home, you (feel like) you’re not doing enough to meet the requirements of your job, but you’re also not being a fully present parent,” Wilson said. “I don’t see how that’s alleviated by a two-day-at-school and three-day-at-home schedule. That’s still going to be a concern for people.”
Broman-Fulks — who is currently working part-time from home — said her family is considering the option of remote learning with the Watauga Virtual Academy. When making the decision of potentially not returning for in-person instruction, she said her family considered the upward trend of COVID-19 cases in the state and region, and that her family wanted to see more studies regarding long-term implications of contracting the virus as well as better treatment and prevention measures.
Many parents are also advocating for more days for in-person learning. Some have expressed on social media that they worry about child care for the three days that students will be remote learning. Milner said child care may fall back on grandparents while parents go to work.
“If the kids are going to school two days a week and staying with grandma three days a week, then we’re putting grandma in a really serious position,” Milner said.
Hallie Harding is a single mom who has been paying $70 a day for a nanny to care for her two children while she goes to work. This has taken place while school has not been in session and summer camps aren’t operating. She said while her paycheck has been cut, she’s been thankful to have retained her job.
However, Harding said she’ll be forced to quit her job if she can’t find a remote position or an available nanny — which she said she won’t be able to afford. Her children — 12-years-old and 7-years-old — attend Hardin Park, and each have an individualized learning plan. Due to their styles of learning, remote education wasn’t a good fit. She said her family supports the school system, and loves their school community.
“Unfortunately with COVID-19 and the decision to continue remote learning, I am at a personal loss,” Harding said. “I have run out of options and I’m not sure where to turn.”
When deciding between homeschooling and applying for the Watauga Virtual Academy, Broman-Fulks said she took into account how much her family values public education. She became concerned about the possibility of WCS cutting teacher and staff positions if enrollment drops because families chose to homeschool — a concern Wilson expressed as well. WCS stated that it had an enrollment of 4,702 students in May.
According to the N.C. Department of Administration, 523 homeschools were registered in 2019-20 with an enrollment of 891 students in Watauga County. The department explained that in order to legally provide for a child’s education at home and meet North Carolina compulsory attendance laws, parents must file a notice of intent to homeschool. The Department of Administration’s Division of Non-Public Education started accepting new notices of intent on July 1.
The N.C. Department of Administration explains that homeschools must consist of children from no more than two families or households. Parents or legal guardians or members of either household are required to determine the scope and sequence of the academic instruction, provide academic instruction and determine additional sources of academic instruction. Additionally, the department requires that families follow the legal requirements to operate a home school, notify the Division of Non-Public Education at any time if the homeschool address or enrollment changes and to respond to communications from the division in a timely manner to confirm continued operations.
To file a notice of intent to open a new homeschool, visit www.dnpesys.nc.gov/NPEPublic/NOIHomeSchool.aspx.
Elliott explained that public schools receive state funding based on enrollment. If parents were to choose to homeschool their children rather than remain enrolled in WCS, Elliott said it will result in a decline in enrollment and a loss of state funding. A loss of funding would mean the school system would need to cut spending or find other ways to fund expenses.
“So far we have been able to maintain the employment of all our teachers and staff, and I hope that will continue to be the case,” Elliott said. “We plan to give parents the option of an all virtual school with priority given to students who are at high risk for COVID-related illnesses. How many students we can serve will depend on how many teachers we would need to move from in person to all remote instruction.”
As the daughter of a teacher with other family members who serve as educators, Wilson said she worries that asking teachers to return to the classroom would be asking them to “put their lives on the line.” At the same time, she said she believes that teachers are experts in their subject matter, and her high school junior would benefit from a connection to a curriculum that’s already established. This is why Wilson was favoring the idea of the virtual academy.
“I don’t want to send anybody into harm’s way when there are viable alternatives,” Wilson said. “I think why it’s so hard for us to make a firm decision right this minute is because our decision could potentially impact someone else in a way that is negative. If we say we 100 percent are going to stay home with enough people that it hampers the school, then that’s not something we want either.”
Both Wilson and Broman-Fulks said that if their children did attend the Watauga Virtual Academy, they would do so through the fall semester. Once the fall semester had ended, both families would then re-evaluate about how to proceed in spring 2021. Elliott said his hope is that WCS would be back to full operations by the spring, but that will really be dictated by the public health conditions at that time.