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Proposal could end snow days and expand virtual learning options for NC students

Niko sits at the virtual learning workspace that Barrera set up in his bedroom.
Lauren Justice
/
NPR
Niko sits at the virtual learning workspace that Barrera set up in his bedroom.

New legislation in the General Assembly would expand virtual learning options for public school students and could end snow days in districts that opt for remote learning instead of makeup days in June.

The House rules committee approved a bill Wednesday that would regulate and support the continuation of the virtual academies some school districts began during the pandemic. The bill would also permanently let school districts use remote instruction when school buildings close for bad weather.

Representative Jeffrey Elmore introduced the committee substitute for Senate Bill 671, which rewrote a bill originally about school vouchers.

“Using virtual days in replace of snow days really worked for the LEAs, so that is something that would be established and codified without an expiration date,” Elmore said, referring to local education agencies, or school districts.

While that would mean some students can kiss snow days goodbye, others could attend virtual classes year-round for years to come. School districts would have to submit their plans for virtual academies to the state board of education for approval, and could enroll no more than 15 percent of their total student population in a virtual program.

The bill would also make the state's two pilot virtual charter schools essentially permanent, and raise their enrollment caps by 20%. The state has two online charter schools, the NC Virtual Academy and the North Carolina Cyber Academy, that were begun as a pilot program in 2015. The bill would end the pilot program and require the schools to undergo a contract renewal process every five years.

Elmore said extending the reach of the online charter schools would make virtual-only learning accessible to more students whose local schools do not have their own virtual academy.

“Let’s say you do have a small system that only has a few kids that want to do virtual only education. The way this regulation is, the LEA really can’t set it up because there’s not enough kids,” Elmore said, “This will ensure that they do have a virtual-only option.”

No state representatives questioned this provision during the bill reading, but Kris Nordstrom of the NC Justice Center says he has concerns about extending the pilot program. Nordstrom is also a former staff member of the legislature’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division. He worked on public education policy at the time former state representative Craig Horn pushed for the creation of the virtual charter schools.

“Representative Horn knew that I thought this was a terrible idea,” Nordstrom said. “Those schools, since their inception, have been amongst the worst performing schools in the state, and this is not something that's unique to North Carolina,” Nordstrom said, adding that virtual schools across the country have shown poor academic outcomes.

The Department of Public Instruction labeled both the NC Virtual Academy and NC Connections Academy as “continually low-performing” in 2018, due to students' persistently low test scores on statewide standardized tests. The marker designates schools that are among the lowest performing in the state over a three year period.

Nordstrom also raised a concern that, the way the bill is currently written, it might allow any charter school in the state to open or convert to a virtual school, without the enrollment cap placed on traditional public school districts.

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