Wake County Schools

Applications to Virtual academy will play key role in Wake school reopening plans

Posted July 10, 2020 8:38 a.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2020 6:26 a.m. EDT

— Public schools in Wake County will open in a little more than five weeks, and although school administrators have devised a plan for how to operate during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they have not yet figured out the details on how the district's online learning school will work.

The district is launching a Virtual Academy that would provide all classes online for students as an option for those at higher risk for coronavirus infection or whose parents don't feel comfortable sending them back to school yet.

"We need to both understand what our staff and our families are asking for," Superintendent Cathy Moore said Friday.

The school needs to know how many students are interested and how many teachers will be needed. Moore said on Friday that the district does not have a cap the number of students who can apply.

On top of the online learning school, the district has established three plans in accordance with guidance from the state to limit the number of students at the school to slow the spread of coronavirus. Each district in the state is required to create three plans for reopening. The governor will enact one of those three plans ahead of the first day of school.

One of the plans has schools divide students into three groups that would each rotate through one week of class at school and two weeks of online learning at home.

What school parents decide to attend -- the Virtual Academy or their regular class -- will dictate how teachers and administrators must position themselves to pull it all off, Moore said.

"[We need to know] so we can appropriately have the staff we need in buildings, if we can open for students to come in, and how we provide resources that support the Virtual Academy," she said.

Other variables the school district needs to consider include how many teachers might not want to be in class because of the risk of infection and how many families need bus transportation, which will be altered to maintain social distancing.

"I think it is going to be a logistical nightmare," said Missy Maiorano, the parent of a high schooler and a former teacher. "I am not sure how they are going to pull that off."

Or, statewide guidelines Gov. Roy Cooper issues next week could make all the planning moot by forcing the district to switch to all-remote instruction or bringing all students back to class.

Applications for the Virtual Academy went live Friday and are open until July 20. Families that apply commit to at least one semester in the academy and can return to regular classroom instruction next spring only "if space permits."

There is no enrollment cap for the Virtual Academy, but there is an application process and students do have to qualify, Moore said. All core classes will be provided online.

"Once we know the number of students who wish to attend the academy, we can better determine class sizes, schedules and child care needs for those attending our schools in person," school board Chairman Keith Sutton said.

Alan Buck, who has two children in Wake County schools, said the family has decided the children will return to school in August.

"We struggled thinking about what to do,” Buck said. "During the two weeks they are off [for online instruction], we have no idea. We know what choice we have for them to go back, just not how we are going to accomplish it.”

Child care while their children learn at home is an issue for many parents. District officials said they are working to find places for those students, and they believe corporations will step up to offset costs.

An announcement on how that might work is expected soon.

"Without child care, we will be unable to keep our schools running," Moore said.

For the rotating schedule, Sutton said one teacher may be assigned to online work while another is assigned to in-class work. They likely won't have their same students due to the changes in the plans and will have increased workload.

“It’s an unfair thing to ask of our educators,” said Kristin Beller, who represents Wake County on the North Carolina Association of Educators board.

Noting that state guidelines already require health screenings, maintaining social distancing among students and added cleaning in classrooms, Moore said there is a limit to what teachers and schools are going to be able to do.

"Flexibility is not endless," she said. "We cannot expect teachers and staff to be responsible for everything."

“We need to give teachers as much support as humanly possible," said Maiorano, who plans to have her daughter go through the three-week rotation of in-class and at-home instruction.

Other concerns that still need to be ironed out include the technology barrier, because not all students have access to the same technology or have the same technology skills, which makes online instruction difficult.

“There are some teachers ready to go. A majority of them have concerns just like parents have concerns. This is all new,” Beller said.

Additionally, families who have children with learning disabilities or special needs also have their own set of concerns about online instruction.

“That is going to be a challenge in terms of providing the same level of education and services to special-needs students in a virtual remote environment," Sutton said. "That’s going to be difficult."

Parents have also expressed concern about recirculated air in classrooms and the coronavirus spreading in areas with poor circulation. Moore said that the district is looking into this issue because of parent concern.

"It is a tight window, but it is our responsibility and obligation to listen and respond and then plan for the best possible scenarios we can," she said.

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