At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Schools adjust to changing COVID-19 orders

With the realization that students won’t be returning to school until at least May 15, public school systems in Western North Carolina are adjusting their calendars while continuing to educate and feed their students. 

Teachers and administrators have had to be quick on their feet when it comes to responding to the coronavirus and State of Emergency orders from the state and their respective county. 

The Haywood County School Board held an emergency meeting March 25 to discuss the school calendar. Spring break — originally scheduled for April 6-10 — will remain in place for students but spring break for faculty and staff will be shifted to span five consecutive Fridays, four in April and one in May. Friday April 3 and 10 will be holidays, and Fridays April 17, 24 and May 1 will be annual leave days. 

The new spring break dates for staff were arranged to prevent students going a full week (spring break) without the delivery of meals from Haywood County Schools. The plan now is to either deliver two days’ worth of meals to students each Thursday, prior to the Friday off for staff. Or, to rally volunteers that are available to deliver meals on the Fridays that staff have off. 

Though the new calendar won’t please everyone, School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said the goal was to make sure food continued to be delivered.

“We’re doing what I feel like is best for the children in Haywood County, and it was echoed across the state in a conference call I had this morning, that we want to take care of the children first,” said Francis.

The school board also voted to grant Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte emergency powers related to the Coronavirus Pandemic. The purpose of these powers is to expedite Haywood County School’s ability to respond during school closings. The powers include lawful actions to adjust things like the school calendar, staff work schedule, meal delivery, curriculum, limitations to access of School Board property, as well as the ability to enter into contracts related to the COVID-19 emergency situation without board approval. 

The powers will last for the duration of the March 14 order by Gov. Roy Cooper and can be rescinded at any time by a two-thirds majority of the board. 

“This resolution from the state school boards association will certainly help us expedite things, but I take no pleasure in making decisions that  are normally approved by the board and I want to assure the board that those would be very, very limited,” said Nolte. 

As for academics, school administrators went through a lengthy webinar with the N.C. Department of Public Education last Friday to discuss how public education and students will be impacted by the pandemic.

“In the future, the military, employers, and higher education will automatically understand transcripts from 2019-20 were significantly impacted by COVID-19,” Nolte said in a press release. “Student grades as of March 13, 2020 will not be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. If grades may be improved, that guidance may come at a later time.” 

School systems have not received guidance from the state about what will happen after May 15 or whether students will be able to return to campus. Elementary schools (K-5) are directed to “focus on supporting student progress and communicating feedback to students and their families rather than assigning grades.”

For students in grades six through 11, schools may only assign grades for the purpose of evaluating student progress, but those grades can’t negatively impact grades established as of March 13.

High School students in spring semester Career and College Promise (CCP) college courses should finish the courses remotely if possible. Non-seniors will receive a final grade for the completed course or will be assigned an incomplete due to COVID-19. Incompletes may be made up at a later date.

The state board gave particular attention to high school seniors and approved a grading policy to enable them to graduate on time. Seniors may complete the CCP course, but if they don’t, based upon progress through March 13, will receive a “Pass” or a “Withdrawal.” All high school students in 2019-20 will receive the grades already established for fall 2019. 

Seniors are required to meet minimum state requirements of 22 credits for graduation — 16 core credits and 6 state required electives. Seniors will receive a grade of “Pass” or “Pass Withdraw” based on second semester learning as of March 13 in spring courses. If seniors had an “F” grade in a second semester course as of March 13, high schools will provide remote learning opportunities for students to improve to a passing grade. 

“All students are encouraged to learn as much as possible during the remainder of 2019-20,” Nolte said. “We should make every reasonable effort to help students progress as much as possible. When we come out of this crisis situation, what you have learned will be more beneficial than grades on your transcript. I recently heard someone say, ‘You can get a lot done in a storm.’ This COVID-19 storm is an opportunity for our students to learn more than other students across the state and nation.”

Jackson County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Angie Dills said the district is responding to the new state guidance by helping teachers connect with students in ways that are most appropriate for each student’s situation.

“Our biggest challenge is providing instruction that is accessible and equitable for all students,” said Dills. “We have tried to design multiple ways to access materials. We are being flexible and focusing on engagement rather than evaluation.”

JCPS Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Elliott affirmed the actions of the state board and said the district will help all students continue their academic growth.

“We are working diligently to ensure all seniors graduate on time,” said Elliott. “We have engaged in remote learning to complete the final 25 percent of this year’s content, and we will assist any student who is missing assignments or is in need of remediation to be promoted to the next grade level.”

The Swain County Board of Education will be meeting April 2 to discuss its school calendar as well as their budget appropriation request for the Swain County commissioners. All local school boards have been able to live broadcast their board meetings on YouTube or Zoom to maintain social distancing while being as transparent as possible with the public. 

Macon and Swain counties also remain dedicated to continuing at-home learning as well as food distribution to students. Macon delivered 4,282 meals on its first day of at-home learning March 17. 

“Our faculty, staff and administration have been working around the clock to ensure that students are receiving information regarding their at-home learning,” Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin said in a press release. “Please be patient and remember this is a first for all of us, but, if you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact your school.”

SMN Contributing Writer Hannah McLeod contributed to this report. 

Go to top