All North Carolina public schools will reopen Aug. 17 -- and add five days to the school year -- as part of a COVID-19 response plan signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday.
Senate Bill 704 includes a school calendar mandate that overrides school board decisions and takes away the flexibility normally granted to charter schools.
State Rep. Craig Horn, who co-chaired a House panel on COVID-19 education strategies, says the mandatory start date, which falls a week earlier than most districts had planned to open, is a compromise. He says many educators wanted more time to make up for this spring's disruption, while business owners wanted summer revenue once stay-home orders are lifted.
"We tried to balance all of those things," Horn said. "The need to get kids in school as quickly as possible the need for everyone to get a break, the need for our business community to recoup some of the terrible losses."
The current calendar law tries to standardize the summer break with a late August opening and an early June close. But local variations mean the new plan will require big adjustments.
For instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools approved an Aug. 31 start in 2020 to avoid traffic and distraction from the Republican National Convention, which falls during the first week of class in the standard North Carolina calendar.
Assuming the in-person convention goes ahead as planned, CMS will either have to seek a waiver from the new mandate or start in-person classes Aug. 17 and go to remote learning the following week, said Charles Jeter, governmental affairs director for CMS.
The Iredell-Statesville Schools 2020-21 calendar begins Aug. 5. ISS is among several districts that used a loophole in the current law to open early this year so first-semester exams would come before winter break.
The COVID-19 bill says public schools must have 190 days of class this year, up from 185. It doesn't address extra pay. Horn says that will be part of the budget talks that begin in two weeks.
The COVID-19 bill cancels this year's Read To Achieve summer reading camps, which are normally required for some third-graders to be promoted. The bill also lifts the requirement that third-graders earn a grade-level reading score on year-end exams to be promoted because the exams have been waived this year.
But a companion COVID-19 relief bill also signed Monday provides $70 million for a voluntary summer program, which lawmakers had called a jump-start program, for K-4 students who are at risk of falling behind.
Remote Learning Continues
The bill mandates that the 2020-21 calendar include at least five scheduled remote learning days and that each district or charter school plan submit a remote learning plan by July 20.
Horn says that's to ensure that the lessons of this spring's switch aren't lost. When Cooper closed schools March 17 to slow the spread of the coronavirus, teachers had to learn to provide lessons online or through paper packets, and families had to come up with home-schooling routines.
"We need to be prepared," Horn said. "We can't tell you for certain that we won't have a resurgence of COVID or something else in October. So let's start preparing."
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