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GREENSBORO — State law says school districts must resume in-person classes on Aug. 17. But Guilford County Schools leaders expect some families, and even teachers, will be unwilling to come back because of their fears of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. 

So the district wants to pursue what one school board member said Thursday was an "outside the box" solution.  

To that end, the Guilford County Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a recommendation from the superintendent to ask the state for permission to run two virtual academies. One academy would be for kindergarten through fifth grade, the other for sixth through 12th grades.

If formed, they would be staffed by Guilford County Schools teachers and be optional for families. 

District leaders can't promise they will be able to open these virtual academies. They're simply trying to have options.

The vote came later in the virtual meeting after board members chose to delay until June 9 a vote on changes to the school calendar. The board said they wanted to make sure staff and students can be heard on the changes, while also stressing that the school district must comply with the state-mandated Aug. 17 start date. 

State laws, in place prior to the pandemic, allows school districts to open virtual academies, which offer online rather than in-person instruction.

School administrators pointed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as an example. And there's no limit on the total number of students per virtual school, they said. 

They told board members Thursday there's much about the proposal they haven't figured out — or if it's even realistic to go through the application process prior to school starting in August. 

Whitney Oakley, the school system's chief academic officer, said if a significant number of families quit the district in favor of other online schools for their children, the district will lose the per-pupil funding from the state for those students. That, in turn, would likely cause the district to consider school closures and other cuts. 

"If we do not have options that keep parents feeling safe, we will then have to consider things to save those dollars," she said. 

School administrators said the virtual academies could provide positions for teachers unwilling to return to schools.

"I think it’s a really good idea," board member Darlene Garrett said of the plan. 

While the vote was unanimous, some board members did have concerns.

Board member Anita Sharpe wondered about the quality of instruction the virtual schools could provide.

Pat Tillman, another board member, pointed out that not all families have access to high-speed internet or the flexibility to have a parent at home with their child.  

Superintendent Sharon Contreras said if the application is approved, she expects the academies would be permanent. 

"I think that education as we know it has changed forever," she said. 

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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