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As school districts grapple with coming school year, Durham Public Schools launches online academy

Posted June 30, 2020 11:46 a.m. EDT
Updated July 1, 2020 8:16 a.m. EDT

Durham Public Schools is launching a new online academy to provide additional options for families who are leery of sending their children to school in the fall during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic or for children who can't return because of health concerns.

Ignite! Online Academy will be Durham's first fully public online academy for kids in kindergarten to twelfth grade. Courses will be taught by Durham teachers, and advanced academic offerings will be available.

Durham families also will not lose their spots at their Durham base or magnet schools if they choose to send their kids to Ignite! instead.

"You'll be allowed to opt back in to your base or magnet school at the end of the nearest semester," said Matt Hickson, Durham's new online learning director, in a YouTube message about the program.

According to Ignite's website, the technology-based program will offer a personalized, self-paced approach, small group coaching sessions with a Durham teacher and flexible scheduling options.

"Our model is simple," Hickson said in the YouTube message. "Your student brings their interest and learns at their pace and we provide the support, technology and inspiration."

According to the Ignite! website, students will receive a laptop and hotspot as part of their enrollment in the online academy. Students also will have the option to continue to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics through their base school, according to the website.

Said Hickson: "This is a tremendous opportunity if your family is concerned about health and safety during COVID."

More information about the program is on the Ignite website, including an opportunity to request enrollment.

Announcements about NC schools expected Wednesday

School districts and state leaders across the country are grappling with what school might look like in the fall. In North Carolina, state leaders are considering options that would entail minimal social distancing, moderate social distancing or remote learning only. They were expected to announce by Wednesday, July 1, which of the three plans will be implemented, but postponed the announcement late Tuesday.

“Opening schools will be possible if we keep working together to slow the spread of COVID-19. We will each need to do our part and practice the 3 Ws – Wear a cloth face covering. Wait six feet apart. Wash your hands frequently. These easy actions will have outsized impact in keeping viral spread low to in order to help get our children back to school,” said Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in a press release.

But exactly how schools actually reopen will likely remain in flux and depend on how quickly COVID-19 is spreading in August. Wake County Public School System also is planning to offer an online option to students and will share more detailed plans in July after Wednesday's state announcement.

Pediatricians: In-person school is critical

But, as school districts make plans for online options, the American Academy of Pediatrics also said this week that all policy discussions about the coming school year should start with having kids in the classroom, according to guidance from the group.

The pediatricians group said that schools are "fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.."

Re-entry policies, it said, should be flexible, nimble, appropriate for the child and adolescent's developmental stage and account for the diversity of youth.

"The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school," the group said in the statement. "The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality."

Among its recommendations, the group said that three feet of social distance may be enough for school children. Six feet has been the widely accepted recommendation for social distancing. But, the group notes, spacing desks six feet apart may not be feasible inside many classrooms.

"In many school settings, 6 feet between students is not feasible without limiting the number of students," the group said. "Evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic."