Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, at the podium. (Image via screenshot)
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, at the podium. (Image via screenshot)

NC General Assembly’s call is part of a broad COVID-19 relief bill released Tuesday.

UPDATE: After publication of this commentary, state Senators Loosened The Remote Plan Mandate. Read the full update here.

A provision buried deep in the NC Senate’s COVID-19 Recovery Act would require school districts show by the end of June how they will ensure that remote instructional time will result in the same learning growth as in-person instruction.  

It’s not sitting well with teachers.

The NC General Assembly convened its annual session this week, returning to a very different reality than the one it left when it finally adjourned in January after having failed to pass a budget.  

Both the House and the Senate have been hard at work for weeks drafting relief bills.  We knew exactly what the House was up to, because that work was conducted in full view of the public.  A House Select Committee with working groups on health care, economics, state operations and education has streamed audio of meetings and published draft legislation to allow North Carolinians to stay informed.  Members of the education working group have held multiple virtual town halls to invite educators to ask questions and weigh in on what kind of support they need as draft legislation has taken shape.  

On the Senate side there had been nary a peep until late Tuesday afternoon when a 50-page bill entitled COVID-19 Recovery Act was filed.  The House and Senate will now begin the work of hammering out a compromise between them.

The Senate’s bill has broad bipartisan sponsorship and would bring a lot of much-needed relief to North Carolina.  But one education-related provision in the bill has gone over like a lead balloon with the state’s educators.

That section of the law would require that every school district in North Carolina submit a Remote Instruction Plan for the 2020-21 school year to the State Board of Education by June 30, which would detail how schools will provide quality remote instruction to all students.  Districts would have to show that “remote instructional time, practice, and application components produce learning growth that is commensurate with what would have taken place had the remote instruction day been a non-remote instruction day.”

It’s hard to articulate how completely out of touch that expectation is.

North Carolina’s schools have had to reinvent themselves overnight in order to slow the spread of a deadly virus and are now in the seventh week of a statewide school closure.  We’re doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to ensure that students are engaged and learning.  Teachers are mastering new digital tools and districts are establishing partnerships with Internet service providers to improve access to online resources across the state.  

But for every problem that we solve, it seems like a new one crops up to take its place.

For our early elementary students, a quality personal relationship with their teacher is the most crucial component in successful learning.  Online instruction is not at all developmentally appropriate for students in grades K-3, and it’s completely unreasonable to expect the same results for them when they are learning at home.

One of the most difficult challenges for older students has been just getting them to consistently participate in remote learning.  An effective classroom teacher has an untold number of strategies to ensure participation when students are physically present in class.  Few if any of those strategies work under a remote instruction scenario. 

The reason for that lack of participation varies tremendously.  In some cases, parents are working outside the home, and students aren’t self-motivated enough to stay engaged on their own.  Or parents may be present but are so overwhelmed that they are unable to function as effective teaching assistants through no fault of their own.

This pandemic has also exposed systemic inequities like never before.  We’re finding that the digital divide is a much wider chasm than we’d realized.  While we’ve made some progress at ensuring more of our children have access to online instruction by providing hotspots and computers, there are a lot of rural communities in the state where Internet and even cell signals aren’t an option.  

Does anyone honestly think that a thick packet of worksheets is an acceptable substitute?

Even if we were able to solve 100% of the access issues — which is next to impossible — there’s simply no substitute for the magic of in-person teaching and learning.  

Rather than setting an impossibly high bar, legislators need to extend grace and understanding to the state’s educators.  

Understand that we are engaged in work that none of our training prepared us for.  Rely on existing accountability systems when they’re appropriate for pandemic learning, and waive them when they’re not.   Don’t try to hold educators responsible for factors we have no control over.  

And above all, focus on providing North Carolinians with the resources we need to effectively educate our students in these unprecedented circumstances.