220 NC teachers are being laid off and online classes could be cut. Who is to blame?

Updated on Aug. 2

Hundreds of teachers at the N.C. Virtual Public School are being temporarily laid off, costing those educators thousands of dollars and reducing online options for students across the state this fall.

Teachers who are working this summer at the Virtual Public School — a state-run online program — were notified Tuesday that they will not be allowed to work the fall semester to satisfy state laws for temporary employees.

The late notice is forcing those 220 teachers to scramble to find ways to replace the lost income and the school to figure out how to staff classes without those educators. The program allows more than 50,000 students to take courses that they can’t get at their assigned school.

“We just have to hope they’re trying to resolve the situation,” said Crissie Ricketts, a math teacher at the Virtual Public School. “It’s a very untenable situation, because for some teachers it’s worth $30,000.

“There are some stay-at-home moms who this is their primary income. This is my son’s college tuition.”

Questions are being asked about what happened.

“The directive to take a semester-long break was determined by NCVPS with legal counsel from the State Board (of Education) office and the Office of State Human Resources,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said in an email Thursday to the 220 laid-off teachers.

“While I believe those involved were attempting to find a good solution, I was unfortunately not consulted on this issue. I am now aware and have already reached out to the Governor’s office and the General Assembly to find a better solution.”

But the Office of State Human Resources said neither they nor Temporary Solutions, which processes the school’s payroll, made the decision to lay off the teachers for the fall semester. Jill Lucas, a Human Resources spokeswoman, said Temporary Solutions gave the Virtual Public School alternatives in May that could have been used so teachers wouldn’t be classified as temporary employees.

“We feel deeply for these teachers, but we did suggest some alternatives,” Lucas said in an interview Thursday.

Lucas said that the school could have contacted teachers in May and not waited until this week. Lucas also said that teachers should address their concerns to their employer, which is the school, and not Temporary Solutions.

The Virtual Public School is a separate entity from the two online virtual charter schools that have drawn controversy.

In the email sent Tuesday to teachers, the Virtual Public School said that Temporary Solutions is requiring all teachers to take a 31-day break in service. This means all teachers have to take a semester off, which means that those who worked the summer semester would have to take the fall semester off.

“NCVPS recognizes that this change will likely have a significant impact on its fall programming and on its valuable teachers and staff,” Eliz Colbert, the school’s executive director, said in the Tuesday email. “NCVPS staff will work with DPI staff to explore other possible solutions for future years that may lessen the impact of the mandatory break in service.”

Colbert referred questions to the state Department of Public Instruction

“This is a real gut punch,” said Ricketts, the teacher. “You love doing your job but you’re told you can’t do your job without advance notice.”

The lack of advance notice was also questioned by the N.C. Association of Educators. But NCAE also said it’s optimistic that a solution can be reached, and that it would do everything it can to assist in quickly bringing this dispute to an amicable resolution.

“We have talked to the governor’s office and we understand they are working to resolve the issue quickly,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in a statement Friday. “What is not in dispute is that this situation was handled poorly, and teachers deserve better than being told they cannot work two weeks before the start of school.”

Several teachers said it won’t be easy finding replacements for this fall, especially experienced ones to staff the classes.

“They’re not going to be able to service as many students,” said Allison Altvater, a social studies teacher at the school. “They won’t have instructional leadership. Almost all of our instructional leaders were laid off because many were working in the summer.”

Teachers say they feel like they’re caught in the middle.

“There have got to be ways to work this out, but people are drawing lines in the sand and they’re not caring it’s going to affect so many teachers, parents and students,” said Melissa Barnhart, a math teacher at the school.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.