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North Carolina students are missing a lot of school. Can they catch up?

Snow scenes as 5-8 inches blanket Raleigh

Inches of snow blanket the triangle causing power outages, slick roads and outdoor fun sunday, Dec. 9, 2018 in Raleigh.
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Inches of snow blanket the triangle causing power outages, slick roads and outdoor fun sunday, Dec. 9, 2018 in Raleigh.

As state Rep. Craig Horn drove along snowy, wreck-strewn highways toward Raleigh on Monday, he stewed over a question that’s on a lot of minds this week: What should the state do about all the school days North Carolina’s kids are missing?

Since schools opened in August the state has been walloped by two hurricanes and an early winter storm, all of which closed schools across the state, costing some students weeks of classes. Many districts are running out of makeup options, with the worst stretch for winter weather still ahead.

“I’m trying to figure out what we need to do, what we can do,” said Horn, a Union County Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.

An occasional unexpected day off school can be fun. But with first-semester exams looming in high schools and many districts facing more closings or delays Tuesday, the disruptions are becoming troubling.

“These kids are learning information for about 3-4 days and then taking a 4 day break from it. I don’t know how much damage that will do to their long-term retention, but I’m concerned,” Chapel Hill teacher Rachel Hopler said in a Facebook exchange with a reporter. She said her students are two weeks behind because she has to keep revising deadlines and reviewing material.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and many other districts across the nation view chronic absence — that is, missing at least 10 percent of school days for any reason — as a significant measure of academic risk. Students in many North Carolina districts have missed about one in 10 days so far even if they’ve done nothing but stay home when schools are closed by weather.

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“Our goal would be to get students and teachers back in class as soon as possible now,” CMS Communications Chief Tracy Russ said Monday afternoon, as he and other staff tried to decide whether schools would open Tuesday. “It is definitely of concern.”

Wake County school leaders are waiting until the weather clears up before determining what steps may be needed to deal with the academic impact of the lost time, according to Lisa Luten, a district spokeswoman.

Solutions are elusive. Some districts have asked the state to waive school calendar restrictions this year or permanently relax state constraints on starting and end dates. State lawmakers allowed the districts hardest hit by Hurricane Florence to waive up to 20 school days.

Craig Horn
Rep. Craig Horn

“We know that flexibility is important. We want to allow the (districts) to be able to solve their own problems,” Horn said. But he worries that some districts will simply settle for a short school year, to the detriment of students.

“We’ve got people that want us to just excuse those days. We’re not going to do that,” he said.

Douglas Price, who teaches at a K-12 charter school in Durham, notes that flexibility doesn’t provide protection against weather disruptions. While state law requires school districts to wait until late August to start their year, Price’s charter school opened in early August. That means high school exams are scheduled to start next week, with snow closings interrupting a crucial stretch for preparation.

“That’s the cost on the flipside for those who are advocates for calendar flexibility,” Price said in an email. “It’s nice when it works, but there are moments such as this that cut into it in critical ways.”

In the meantime, some teachers say they’re relying on technology to keep their students on track. Apps allow teachers to make assignments and communicate with students remotely, and a growing number of schools provide take-home laptops and low-cost internet access.

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Edutopia magazine recently reported on remote education as “The Beginning of the End of Snow Days,” noting that a handful of South Carolina districts have joined counterparts in snowier northern states in planning for students to work online from home when weather closes schools.

For CMS and Wake, the next available makeup day is mid-January, just after first-semester exams.

Wake tweeted a reminder to students urging them to use the time wisely to get caught up on missing school work.

Erlene Lyde, a West Charlotte High teacher and president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said the first-semester closings may mean students who have exams in January can expect extra homework over winter break.

“The teachers will probably assign it,” she said, laughing. “Now whether the kids will do it, that’s a different question.”

Horn, the state legislator and education chair, said he likes the idea of year-round school calendars, which provide more room to adjust to weather closings. But those have always hit fierce resistance from families and businesses that want to preserve a traditional summer vacation, he said.

For now, Horn said he’s desperately seeking a strategy to ensure that North Carolina’s most vulnerable kids don’t fall further behind because of Mother Nature’s onslaught.

“I will go anywhere, talk to anybody,” he said, “if we can figure this out.”

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.