Durham considering shifting to all online classes to start school year

WRAL News has learned that Durham Public Schools administrators are strongly considering opening the school year with all classes taught online because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

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Joe Fisher
, WRAL multimedia journalist, & Matthew Burns, senior producer/politics editor
DURHAM, N.C. — WRAL News has learned that Durham Public Schools administrators are strongly considering opening the school year with all classes taught online because of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

District officials are expected to discuss the matter at a Thursday afternoon school board meeting.

On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper issued statewide guidelines to start the school year on Aug. 17. School districts could either provide a mix of classroom and remote instruction or teach all students online. State health officials provided extensive protocols for masks, social distancing, hygiene, cleaning and how to handle possible infections.
Some Durham teachers were upset at the plan, saying they felt it put their lives in jeopardy because North Carolina's coronavirus caseload and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 continue to grow.

Durham's "Plan B" mix of in-person and remote learning calls for having all high school students stay at home for online instruction, while elementary and middle school students would be taught in person, using the empty high schools to shift classes around for social distancing.

But Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said Tuesday he would consider input from worried teachers as district officials finalized the plans for the 2020-21 school year.

Wake students, parents choosing online academy

Durham's potential move comes as a wave of students in the Wake County Public School System are opting for online-only classes for the fall semester.

About one-fifth of the students in the district have already applied for the WCPSS Virtual Academy – Durham will offer a similar online academy for some students if it sticks with its hybrid model – and the application period remains open until next Monday.

Millbrook High School Principal Dana King said about 12 percent of the school's enrollment have opted for online instruction, and she said she expects seniors will be the most likely students to attend classes in person.

"Millbrook will still be Millbrook. We will look very different, however. We don’t have sports or extracurriculars,” King said.

The biggest challenge, she said, will be staffing the school as more teachers express concern about in-person instruction.

"They’re so stressed out about the thought of coming back into the building and being around kids," she said.

The Virtual Academy has no cap on enrollment, but students must commit to at least a full semester of online classes. Students in the Virtual Academy remain eligible for team sports and any extracurricular activities that might resume this fall and will also keep their spots in their current school and magnet programs.

For students who want to go to school, Wake County's model calls for dividing them into three groups that will each rotate through one week of classroom instruction and two weeks of online learning at home.

"You can’t make a bad decision. You know your child best and you know your family values," King said. "My preference would be for kids to be here, because I can’t form relationships on the computer."

All core classes and most Advanced Placement and honors courses will be offered through the Virtual Academy, but some electives could be limited, officials said.

King said she expects the online instruction will be much better than what was offered last spring when schools across North Carolina abruptly shut down amid the pandemic.

"That was not smooth. The quality differed from classroom to classroom," she said. "We are in a much better position today – much better. Teachers are feeling more confident, [and] the district has submitted and created better curriculum.”

Students an Individualized Education Program also are eligible for the Virtual Academy, but King said it could be difficult for them.

"Exceptional students are going to struggle, and particularly those who have been in self-contained classrooms where they have one teacher, there’s eight or nine students in the room and a couple of instructional assistants," she said. "They are there in a place that feels very predictable for them, and this new world is just going to seem a little more chaotic to them.”

The school district will hold an online open house from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday for interested families on the district's YouTube channel.

"It breaks my heart that these are things beyond our control and the world has changed and we are never going back to the way we were," King said. "We’ll not stay here, but we’re never going back to that traditional school model."


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