NC Superintendent: 'We are not coming back to school April 1st'

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson sat down for an extended, exclusive one-on-one interview with ABC11's Jonah Kaplan to answer the growing list of questions about how the COVID19 crisis is affecting the school year and how families should transition to remote learning.

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"I can tell you right now - people need to be preparing we are not coming back to school April 1st," Johnson, a former teacher and district school board member, asserted. "We're working with the governor's team very closely. We're working with the federal government particularly about getting the waivers we need and making sure we don't have to test this school year."

In our wide-ranging interview, Johnson addressed concerns about graduating seniors, helping students without high-speed internet access, as well as how teachers should be reporting to work, among many other things.

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"We have a lot of families who have internet access but for those that don't, we're not going to get it to them overnight," Johnson explained. "So we're looking at is there a way to do remote learning with printing instructional materials and packets and get those to students. There are hard questions we're going through right now."

North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction manages a public school system of 115 districts, 1.5 million students and more than 100,000 educators.

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WATCH: FULL INTERVIEW WITH SUPERINTENDENT MARK JOHNSON
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Full interview: ABC11's Jonah Kaplan gets answers on schools from Superintendent Mark Johnson



Here's a brief excerpt of ABC11's interview with Superintendent Johnson:

JONAH KAPLAN: You are basically the CEO as Superintendent with 1.5 million students in public schools, more than 100,000 educators in 115 school districts. Take us inside your situation room. We were just talking off camera that tomorrow you're going to be speaking with the federal government. I can't imagine we're coming back to school April 1st.

NC Superintendent Mark Johnson: I can tell you right now. People need to be preparing we are not coming back to school April 1st. We're working with the governor's team very closely, we're working with the federal government particularly about getting the waivers we need and making sure we don't have to test this school year. People need to start preparing this is going to on longer than March 30th. The reason that's important is because we really want to encourage parents to start setting routines for their children. I have a first grader myself. My wife and I are making sure that in the morning we wake up, we do our normal morning routine, we get ready for school and then her school is at home. She has a checklist of the tasks she has to complete and then of course we'll do enrichment in the afternoon. That's important because we don't want people treating this right now like a long break of snow days. This could go on likely for weeks in April and possibly April and May.

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JK: North Carolina is one of 39 states that has canceled all schools. New York City schools are closed until at least April 20th. Kansas cancelling the entire school year. We have question from Mira Hallman Poran who asks, "If school is canceled for a really long time and no one is able to meet up, how are we going to be able to see each other? When will school start up again?"

MJ: Mira, this is something unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. We're going to be OK, but it's very important that we take the steps necessary to make sure we stop the spread of this virus. That means it might be awhile before we all come together in large spaces and in schools, but there's a lot you can do right now at home. You can spend time with your family, do fun activities, but also your teachers are going to be reaching out to you about ways you can engage with them and learn with them at home. And if you haven't done that yet, go check out some of the great resources that are available now for students. I love telling people about Khan Academy. It's a completely online school, completely free that is by grade level and subject. You can start doing lessons right here, right now and then make sure you're getting outside. We have to keep the social distancing but it's beautiful outside. Go outside and play, just be smart about wiping down the play sets, go on a walk, get outside and enjoy the fresh air.

JK: Mira is in 4th grade, but this next question comes from a parent Melissa Balcom. "My son is a senior in high school and my question is what is the status of graduation? How is this going to affect him getting into college when he cannot take the ACT or SAT?"

MJ: Great concern and it's one of our top priorities is focusing on seniors. We actually have been working very closely with UNC system and the community college system to make sure we have seniors, regardless of how long this last, are going to be ready to transfer into those programs without being penalized for this virus. We first off are opening up the North Carolina Virtual Public School. This is a high school that's online and students will be able to plug into courses they may have already started. Those courses they need to graduate? We want to get seniors onto the virtual platform. We also are going through all the policies and looking at laws that may have to be amended to give some grace to students to make sure they get that diploma and can go on their next steps without having to make all this up after.

JK: How much does the General Assembly have a say in this and what will you be recommending?

MJ: The General Assembly is going to be such an important partner in this because right now we're in emergency mode. It's the executive branch. It's me, it's the governor working very closely making these decisions. The General Assembly, like a hurricane, will come in and be able to help with the funding after we get through this. We may need to get some flexibility on testing from them, but right now it's the federal government we're pushing to eliminate some tests, but we are going to be working just like after hurricanes to make sure we use the Rainy Day Fund to pay employees and make the adjustments we need to after we get through the worst of this.

JK: This is a question from Shelly Burrows. "If this pandemic continues, what does it mean for the rest of the school year? Will these days be forgiven? Or will our students have to repeat their grades?" We're looking at Kansas - they just announced they canceled school for the rest of the year and they said everyone is going to be moving up. Let's say you go to next year - there are gaps. Do you just pick up where you left off this year? Do you assume everybody reaches the level they were supposed to be?

MJ: These are the conversations we're having right now with the State Board of Education and the Governor's Office. Later we'll bring in our partners at the General Assembly. These are really tough questions that I promise you so much work is going into this it's unbelievable. We're at the Emergency Operations Center right now, we're dealing with we're making sure we stop the spread, and also answering these questions. That's a big part of what our conversations with the federal government is going to be tomorrow. We also have to listen to our health experts because if we are fortunate to get through this and we can get back to school in late April, in May, then yes, we can forgive the days that were missed just like we do in a hurricane. If we are looking at an extended absence out of school until June or July, we're going to have to rethink what remote learning looks like in order to get the material to students and rethink what this school year looks like. Those unfortunately are things we don't have answers to right now but I do want to assure people in North Carolina, one very positive thing is you have true bipartisan work going on right now. I'm a Republican elected statewide leader, Roy Cooper is a Democrat. Our offices have been working very, very close together. We have all been at the EOC together getting through these questions, making sure that what we need answers on we will be able to go to federal government and the General Assembly and provide guidance for teachers and parents and students as soon as possible.
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