COVID-19 First-Person Perspective: Alan Duncan

Alan Duncan

Alan Duncan

Alan Duncan of Mullins Duncan Harrell & Russell in Greensboro serves as vice chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education. He is a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association and North Carolina Bar Foundation. Below is his interview with Russell Rawlings.

How is the State Board of Education responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The State Board has met virtually on a regular basis and continues to focus on the needs of our children and how we support our educators as best we can under these unique and unprecedented circumstances. This process is about the students. We are not just seeking to provide an alternative path to meet our students’ academic needs, but also serve other significant student needs as well.

For example, we have worked to keep child nutrition services available for our children in need. That problem has been particularly acute because so many parents of our students have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 situation. It has been a real challenge in terms of having adequate funds for all of the districts around the state to keep those services in place, but with the help of the Governor and General Assembly we have been able to do so.

There are some real heroes out there who prepare and distribute the food and drive the buses, exposing themselves to greater risk of contracting the virus to serve our children.  They have shown a true commitment to our students’ needs, and also provided social and emotional support. They really are heroes, and need to be recognized as such.

How difficult has it been to implement distance learning across the state?

Supporting distance learning has been a tremendous challenge. Most people do not realize what goes into working remotely with students. Contact with their teachers is really positive for our students, who otherwise are going through great stress in their lives, due to circumstances that they do not fully understand. Just the work teachers are doing to maintain contact with their students is a challenge. Even with areas where there is strong connectivity, there are high numbers of students who do not have devices or connectivity in their homes. Although most of our students around the state live where broadband has been fully developed, that still does not cover all the students in our state. There are a number of teachers (approximately five percent) and students (approximately 20 percent) who do not have that connectivity.

We are working with tech companies, who have been very generous, to provide hot spots for connectivity. Once that work is done, we can set up additional service, but we still cannot reach all of our students. This is a very fragile situation, especially for at-risk students, in terms of their ability to connect. We are trying to do the very best we can to encourage them and to connect them with our educators who are doing a tremendous job on the front line of both educational and emotional support. Our educators have a real can-do spirit and should be commended for all the work they are doing under these trying circumstances.

What are some of the other issues?

There are some immediate issues that arise when schools close, and then numerous issues to deal with on how we move forward. It is as if you have a high-speed train going 200 miles an hour, and all of a sudden it stops. It takes a good bit of distance and time for the train to come to a full stop. And once it does stop, what do you do with all of those students, who have no place to go? What does your grading policy look like? What does distance learning with incomplete connectivity look like? How do we deal with the inherent inequities that arise from the very disparate circumstances of our students around the state? There are a myriad of issues like those, and there are wonderful support teams at the Department and in the educational community who have stepped up to help navigate this process. These are uncharted waters, and we are not going to hit every wave just right. There is going to be a bobble or two along the way, but we are trying to make the best decisions for all of our students from across the state.

What does the 12- to 18-month picture look like?

According to doctors and public health experts, there is the likelihood of a second wave or further wave that will need to be dealt with as people gradually work their way back into life as we knew it. This will require following a phasing process for reentry into our schools. Our schools were not built for social distancing. Class sizes call for a certain number of students in a certain number of square feet, and there is not enough room for social distancing. The cafeterias are not perfectly situated for social distancing either. As we work to the future, knowing there is a huge risk for loss of both learning opportunity and loss of retention of concepts already learned, we would like to start the reentry process for schools by early August, but we do not know yet exactly what that will look like in August.

We are preparing for “jump-start” programs for the students who are most in jeopardy for learning loss, and we are looking at the best setup for classrooms. We will need to consider what ongoing role distance learning may play in this reentry process. It is important that we move forward next year with a series of academic goals and standards that we want to meet. That is a tall order, and again our educators are central to the success of this process, as are all of our support personnel. We are trying to find ways to support them and model what an ongoing schedule will look like.

We very much value every student and we value their individual gifts, and also the obligation to support their needs. There are differences in our students – they all have areas to work on and also clear gifts – and we need to try to accommodate their educational progress, which is challenging in the best of times, and an even greater challenge right now. Not every student comes with the same background or same support, but every student deserves our very best effort, every day. Right now, our best effort is challenging because we do not have the ideal instructional setting available, and we grieve that loss. But our educators are providing educational and emotional support as best they can through distance learning. We will learn some things through this process, and we want to be able to use the things we learn to benefit our students for the future.

What have you learned?

I have not had time yet for that reflective moment. One thing to note is that to the extent that anybody ever wondered about social and emotional support being an important part of the educational process, that fact has very much been reinforced. It has been very apparent from reports from parents and community members that emotional support is an extremely important part of the educational process for our students. Our educators are so important to our students in so many ways, please find ways to thank them for all they do.

A second item of note is that it is remarkable what some districts are doing with distance learning. They are doing innovative things with their students and casting a wide innovative net over a short period of time, capturing as many of our students as possible in an effective way, that has students embracing this different form of educational opportunity.

For some districts that have not spent a lot of time with distance learning, they are progressing rapidly. A great deal has been learned about how we can use this long term. It is clear that while nothing will replace teacher-led instruction in the classroom, supporting the implementation of distance learning is important, and I think we will be much better at it from this process as we work together to develop best practices. There will be longer-term benefits from these efforts.

Finally, our exceptional children are truly special, and rightfully get our attention as they make remarkable developments. Not being able to be in physical contact with these students in the present circumstances is frustrating for both educators and students. Much creativity has been shown by many educators to reach many of these students despite these many obstacles. We will have much work to do with these students when we can resume full-scale activities in more normal circumstances, but want to shine the light on the work that has occurred during the COVID-19 crisis, and give thanks for the opportunity to work with these very special young people much more closely as we work to return to a sense of what will be our new normal.

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of North Carolina Lawyer. Access a curated view of NC Lawyer or view the table of contents.