As public schools go back into session around North Carolina, with some districts reopening classrooms and some offering only virtual learning for the coming weeks, there will be no such thing as a uniform educational experience across the board.
In the reopening plans they’ve rolled out over the last few weeks, Moore County’s three independently run charter schools have each come up with different ways of complying with state guidelines.
Like the traditional public school system, The Academy of Moore County, Moore Montessori Community School and STARS Charter will have to work within the state’s rules for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s up to each individual school how they do that.
Until Gov. Roy Cooper authorizes a full reopening, schools can only bring in as many children as their buildings can accommodate with 6 feet of distance between them. Face coverings, along with symptom and temperature screenings, will become part of each school day.
The state didn’t finalize that plan until mid-July, forcing schools that usually get an early start to postpone the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The Academy, which runs on a year-round schedule, pushed its first day of school from July 20 to Aug. 3.
“We’re going to go through June 4, 2021, so with the additional remote days that the state has required anyway, our school calendar will only be extended an additional week,” said Director of Education Allyson Schoen.
Both STARS and Moore Montessori are planning to start the school year on Aug. 17.
Though they have the option to resume all-virtual learning, and the obligation to offer it to families who choose, all three schools will welcome students back to their classrooms. For the start of the school year at least, students at all three charters will attend school part-time under an educational model incorporating both classroom and online learning.
Classroom sizes at The Academy of Moore vary, so the school can accommodate either 12 or 20 students in each room while observing 6 feet of social distancing. When it reopens, though, the school has elected to cap even the larger classrooms at 15 students.
“We went through classrooms and measured,” said Schoen. “Our older building’s classrooms are a little bit smaller, so we were concerned about that.”
The Academy serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade. When school starts next week, it will be on an A/B schedule to comply with the new restrictions.
“A Day” students will attend class on Mondays and Wednesdays. The “B Day” group will be in school Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Earlier this summer, the school surveyed families to determine their scheduling preferences. School staff say that feedback from those surveys was the primary factor in assigning student schedules for the return to school this fall.
A smaller cohort of students will attend school on Mondays and Wednesdays, since the school only needs to designate about five students per class to the “A” group to keep class sizes down enough to comply with social distancing requirements on the other three days.
“Everybody needs to be flexible, including parents and my teachers, who do a great job at that,” said Schoen. “The bottom line is that we want to provide a solid education for all kids, not just those who are here: the A plan, the B plan, everyone is 100 percent. We want to make sure we get what they need so they’re successful at the end of the year and moving forward to the next grade.”
Schoen said that about 25 percent of students have opted to enroll in the Academy’s all-virtual learning program.
“Many families have chosen to go totally remote,” she said. “That’s given us some leeway as far as the numbers, so we’ll be compliant with where the state wants us to be.”
At Moore Montessori in Southern Pines, all students will attend school for three hours a day. Moore Montessori will serve students in kindergarten through fourth grade this year.
For the first two weeks of the year, the Montessori charter school will phase its opening, with morning students attending on Mondays and Wednesdays and afternoon students attending on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After that, all students will attend four days per week.
Fridays, which are usually a half day to allow for teachers to focus on professional development in the afternoon, will be reserved for small cohorts of students needing specific attention. Other students will engage in remote learning on Fridays.
“Seeing them four or five days a week is ideal, and we can get a lot done in three hours,” said Head of School Katherine Rucker. “It eliminates the need to have lunch and recess at school, which present challenging logistics under Plan B (guidelines), and then the children are only in their masks for three hours a day at school.”
The school is also working to adapt its educational approach to the pandemic environment. Montessori instruction emphasizes interactive learning and collaboration between students in mixed-age groups.
Students will have assigned seats this year, and all materials that they use will be sanitized by a teacher or assistant before being returned to the shelf.
“We will get creative on ways for them to collaborate, maybe on big projects, from home, but they won’t be working closely together, physically, in the classroom,” said Rucker. “We will be flexible and adaptable. The Montessori model has been through a war and pandemic before, and we’re going to do it again.”
Rucker said that between 10 and 15 percent of Moore Montessori families are pursuing the school’s “Learning@Home” all-virtual option. The school has assigned one lead teacher to oversee that program, which will be structured like a full school day with breaks and independent activities away from the screen.
Moore Montessori families who choose all-virtual learning will commit to that for at least the first semester. The school will provide school supplies to those families where needed. Whether they sign up for virtual learning or return to the classroom, the school is also offering grocery gift cards to families who qualify for free or reduced cost lunch at school.
STARS Charter, a K-12 school in Vass that emphasizes the performing arts, will proceed under an A/B schedule similar to Moore County Schools’. At STARS, students will be assigned to one of two groups. The “A” group will attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the “B” group students will be in class on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On the two days they’re not in class, students will learn remotely.
Teachers will record each day’s lesson and upload video for the students who aren’t in school that day. Since the lessons will progress each day, and students will have the same assignments whether they’re in class or learning from home, students will have to log in to the Microsoft Teams platform that STARS is using for online learning to be counted present on their assigned remote learning days.
STARS’ full remote learning option will closely mirror the instruction that other STARS students receive on their assigned online learning days. Families who enroll in that option will be allowed to switch to the more traditional model at the end of each grading period.
STARS already runs on a four-day calendar, with Fridays reserved for optional activities and remedial work where needed. This year, teachers will be available for video conferences with students on Fridays.