BOE discusses graduation, remote learning

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Seniors will choose from several options

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LEDGER – The Mitchell County Board of Education met in regular session Wednesday, April 29, via digital live stream on YouTube. The meeting covered an array of topics, including possible graduation plans for seniors, construction of the new school, remote learning updates and budget cuts for the next year. 

Superintendent Chad Calhoun said even when North Carolina enters Phase One of reopening, gatherings would still be limited to 10 people or less for at least three weeks, which makes it challenging to plan a large-scale graduation.

“I mean, it’s not simple to fix,” Calhoun said. “But we do want to honor our seniors, that’s very, very important.”

The superintendent gave an example of a drive-in graduation around the circle at the high school during which students would drive up with their families and it would be professionally filmed. Calhoun said if they gave each student five minutes and split it into two days, it would be a five-and-a-half-hour ceremony each day. 

“We don’t have an area where we could do a drive-up graduation in Mitchell County where everyone could come to it,” Calhoun said. “I wish we could just spread cars out and do that. But, the best we could come up with was probably the Walmart parking lot. Nothing against Walmart, but who wants to graduate at Walmart parking lot?”

Calhoun said the high school would be sending out a survey to senior students with several different graduation options so they can decide how the ceremony might look.

Additionally, the board approved the motion to enter into phase one of construction on the new school on Ledger School Road across from the Central Office. 

The project superintendent said phase one entails completing the architect plans and beginning site work. Both Calhoun and Board of Education Chair Brandon Pitman noted the $15 million grant was still available. Still, in conversation with state legislators, they should “move ahead” in some capacity to ensure the funding is not rescinded.  

The board also approved a motion to implement an hourly pay increase for hazard workers, such as cafeteria employees, if the state fails to adopt a similar pay increase. If put in place, the increase would be an additional $3 per hour from March 16 to June 30. 

The board also received updates about technology and remote education during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

“Remote education is not for everybody,” Calhoun said. “Kids have learned that, parents have learned that and we’ve learned that. Some people can handle it, and some can’t. But, we will work on making it better in the future.”

Director of Technology Casey Johnson spoke about wifi hotspots and devices, saying it’s been “going really well” for the most part with only a few “bumps in the road” because of families who cannot get wifi due to a lack of cellphone service at their home. The school district purchased 300 hotspot devices through a grant from the Dogwood Health Trust.

Mitchell County Schools Executive Director of Accountability Jennifer Gregory said all students in the district have access to a device, and 14 local businesses and churches have allowed students to come to their parking lots to use their wireless networks. Gregory noted all of these hotspots and devices are content filtered so students cannot access inappropriate or unrelated websites.  

Gregory also spoke about remote learning and both the successes and difficulties they have had so far. Gregory highlighted teamwork and creativity, citing the virtual field trips in which Harris Middle School students engaged. She also noted some areas in need of improvement, however, such as a decreased level of participation among students in remote learning and students and families overwhelmed by homeschooling responsibilities.

Concerning the upcoming budget plans, Calhoun said the county could see some significant budget cuts due to an enrollment drop, loss of low-wealth funding, and an increase in retirement and insurance. Calhoun said it’s been “tough” to determine where to cut, but they are looking at cuts to three or four positions, most of which are retiring teachers.

“It’s not good, it’s not popular, but it is what it is,” Calhoun said. “We’ve cut, we’ve cut, we’ve cut. We’re just about cut out. Now, if we get this new school built, that fixes a lot of this, but between now and whenever that is, we may have to make some adjustments to make some things work.”