Education

State Board of Education wants school funding to remain intact if enrollment declines amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The State Board of Education (SBE) agreed Thursday to ask state lawmakers to hold public schools financially harmless if they lose students due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

School leaders worry that families will choose options other than public schools because they are afraid to return to them for in-person instruction; or they are unhappy with a school board’s decision to provide remote-only instruction.

A decline in enrollment is critical for a school district because education dollars follow students. Fewer students means a funding decrease at a time when districts must do more to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on public schools.

Eric Davis

SBE Chairman Eric Davis said that only the General Assembly can adjust state law to prevent school districts from losing funding due to a drop in average daily membership (ADM).

Generally, the state funds school using a calculation based on its average daily membership or student attendance. ADM is determined on the 20th and 40th day of the school year.

The board agreed to ask lawmakers to pass legislation so school districts won’ be penalized for enrollment decrease during the 2020-21 school year.

“This would include seeking authority to pursue changes to legislatively mandated reductions in initial allotments to mitigate the impact of the unpredictable effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student enrollments for the 2020-21 school year,” Davis said.

The pandemic has required many districts to create virtual academies for families who don’t feel it’s safe to return to schools for in-person instruction.

“We’re facing unprecedented uncertainty, and as we do that, I think we have to recognize that we may have to build new systems to support those things that we’re encouraging districts to do,” said Anthony D. Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools.

As the state Superintendent of the Year, Jackson serves as an adviser to the SBE.

He said state education leaders must not exacerbate equity issues exposed by the pandemic.

“At some point, we’re all going to come back face-to-face,” Jackson said. “My concern is that I’m not going to have the resources at my disposal to meet the social and emotional needs of my students and my staff when that happens.”

He said school districts need funding and operational flexibility.

“I would ask for us to be very flexible and to find some level of balance between fiscal prudence and operational grace as we talk about putting these systems back together,” he said.

Any reduction in funding would hit low-wealth districts hard, said Matthew Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School and state Principal of the Year.

“The ability that we have to serve young people, particularly in areas that are marginally resourced on under-resourced are directly linked to this outdated funding mode,” said Bristow-Smith, an SBE adviser.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill housing policies, density change as pandemic concerns intensify

It’s been a rough week for the UNC System — particularly its flagship campus, UNC Chapel Hill.

First, it was revealed that the Orange County Health Department recommended the school move online-only for the Fall semester and restrict on-campus housing to a bare minimum. The school did not disclose those recommendations to faculty, students or the community and only responded to them when they were reported by media outlets, including Policy Watch.

The school’s lack of transparency was condemned by students, faculty and local elected officials.

On Wednesday evening, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz defended the school’s decision not to follow the health department’s recommendations at an emergency Faculty Executive Committee meeting.

Instead, he said the UNC System had told campus administration to “stay the course” and continue with their reopening plan. He also touted several lesser measures the school is taking that address the health department’s concerns.  The two largest: reducing full capacity dorms to 64 percent capacity and classroom capacity to 30 percent.

But in a press conference Thursday, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin clarified that the reduced residential capacity on campus isn’t the result of a plan by the school but the result of masses of students cancelling their housing contracts.

“We thought it would be better if students made the determinations more on their own rather than being directed in one way or another,” Blouin said.

The provost said the administration has been trying to “encourage dedensification of the campus.” Among those have been the “Carolina Away” program allowing more remote learning. It was initially thought a few hundred students might use the program, Blouin said, but somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 are now planning to use it.

But the primary reason the dorms have become less dense is that students cancelled their housing contracts, either because of health concerns or because more of their classes went online.

Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing.

The extended deadline for getting out of housing contracts without financial penalty is August 7. Students can cancel for any reason.

The school further clarified in a follow up e-mail.

“As outlined in the Roadmap for Fall 2020, all residential students may cancel their housing contract for any reason and without penalty prior to 5:00 p.m. August 7, 2020,” a spokesperson wrote in the email.

“After August 7 or following move-in, whichever comes first, a student-initiated contract cancellation will be accompanied by the standard cancellation costs, and that individual student will receive a prorated credit,” they wrote. “Students who elect a course schedule of remote learning for all classes before the Fall 2020 late registration deadline of August 16, will have no cancellation costs or penalty and will receive a prorated credit.”

“However, if the University moves to fully remote instruction as an off ramp during the semester, the University and Carolina Housing will work with the UNC System to determine whether the University is able to issue housing refunds to residential students,” they wrote.

After that date, any student whose classes are all online can cancel their housing contract without penalty, Blouin said. Students wishing to do so can contact the Carolina Housing via email.

With two dorms being used as isolation and quarantine dorms for those exposed to or positive for COVID-19 there are 7,877 available beds on campus, said Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing. Right now there are about 4,990 students scheduled to live on campus, Blattner said.

It is not clear the degree to which classroom density, which the university says will be down to 30 percent, is the result of moves to actively reduce capacity or of professors shifting their classes online.

There has been a movement among professors at many UNC schools to move as many classes online as possible as administrators have not been willing to officially move all instruction online.

This week Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty council, said she will herself be teaching online-only following the Orange County Health Department’s recommendation.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in an email Wednesday.

Calls and e-mails to the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill for clarification on system and university policies and density reduction measures were not returned Thursday.

Education

State Board of Education resolution honors Halifax County Schools educator who died after battling the coronavirus

Teicher Patterson

The State Board of Education (SBE) on Thursday approved a resolution honoring the life of Halifax County Schools (HCS) Principal Teicher Patterson who died last month battling the coronavirus.

Mr. Patterson was the principal of the Enfield Middle STEAM Academy, and the 2019 HCS Principal of the Year.

The resolution was read during Thursday’s SBE meeting by state  Principal of the Year Matthew Bristow- Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High School.

HCS Superintendent Eric Cunningham said the school district lost a general.

“We lost a real solider who was on the frontline,” Cunningham said.

Mr. Patterson’s career in education spanned 28 years. He was a music teacher, assistant principal, principal and served as president of the N.C. Association of Educators and as a district representative of the NC Parents-Teacher Association of Halifax County.

The resolution noted that Mr. Patterson was present for his students and always went “above and beyond so every child knew they mattered.”

It also pointed out that Mr. Patterson strongly believed that all children, regardless of “circumstances and geography” are capable of achieving at the highest level.

Mr. Patterson was a graduate of N.C. Central University and a member of its band. A district press release said Mr. Patterson wanted to share music with students because he saw it as the tool that moved him from poverty to the middle class.

Here’s the SBE resolution.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Unions call for county health directors to shut down in-person instruction at UNC schools in pandemic

Unions and groups representing UNC System workers and professors are urging county health directors from college communities across the state to order universities to close for normal business “until such time as students, faculty and staff can return safely to their work” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The memo, sent Thursday, comes after this week’s revelation that the Orange County Health Department recommended UNC-Chapel Hill go entirely online in the Fall semester and cut on-campus living to a bare minimum. UNC-Chapel Hill administrators did not disclose those recommendations to faculty, students or the community and is not following them.

The President of the UNC System and the UNC Board of Governors will make the ultimate decision about university closings. They have directed the chancellors to follow orders from public health officials but not recommendations.

The coalition of groups sent the memo calling for orders to directors of health in Watauga, Pitt, Pasquotank, Cumberland, Guilford, Wake, Durham, Orange, Buncombe, Mecklenburg, Robeson, Forsyth, New Hanover and Jackson counties.

“Today, we implore each of you, as the experts and stewards of public health in your respective communities that include UNC System campuses, to communicate your own concerns, guidance, mandates, directives and recommendations in explicit terms, directly to university leadership at the campus in your county,” the unions wrote in the memo. “We ask you to send your own thoughts about how, when, and whether to safely re-open campus to the chancellor and other university leadership with whom you are working on this evolving situation.”

“Nobody knows your county’s unique strengths and areas of vulnerability better than you and your colleagues. We are depending on your collective knowledge, experience, and voices to keep our communities safe, healthy, and strong,” they wrote in the memo. “We ask that you do the responsible thing and order universities closed for normal business until such time as students, faculty, and staff can return safely to their work. We speak not only for ourselves, but on behalf of our students, co-workers, families, and neighbors in making this plea. Ultimately it is your guidance, your words and actions that will matter the most as we move forward together.”

The coalition includes NC Public Service Workers Union: UE Local 150; UNC-Chapel Hill American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter; Members of the North Carolina Conference of AAUP; Workers of UNC Coalition

Read the full memo here.

 

Commentary, COVID-19

New report: U.S. should take these steps to get the virus under control

One fervently hopes that things will be in a better place come January of 2021, but for those looking to get a feel for the kinds of policies a Biden administration might implement if they’re not (or that a Democratic administration might have put in place had one been in power in early 2020), be sure to check out a new report released by the progressive Center for American Progress today.

In “A New Strategy to Contain the Coronavirus,” a team of CAP analysts lays out a straightforward and common sense plan that’s based on the successful experiences of Japan and some states in the American Northeast. As the report makes clear, there’s nothing particularly radical or magical in the recommendations. What they call for is a redoubling of our national effort in several basic areas of public health policy that were never adequately pursued. This is from the introduction to the report:

“After states rushed to reopen their economies in late spring, coronavirus cases began to surge across most of the United States. At the same time, states in the Northeast have experienced declines in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Despite having been the epicenter of the U.S. cases throughout the early spring, this region now has a relatively low degree of new case incidence, even as transmission of the virus accelerates in other parts of the country—particularly in the South and West. (see Figure 1)

Public health experts agree that the rush to end stay-at-home orders without meeting public health benchmarks and the politicization of mask-wearing have created this surge. This report analyses the timing and scope of reopening measures to determine which specific actions were more likely to be the reason for the latest spikes. In particular, the following factors appear to be why the Northeast has had more recent success than the rest of the country in slowing the spread of COVID-19:

  • The timing and duration of initial stay-at-home orders
  • The timing and scope of reopening economic activity
  • Individual behavior and local culture, which may have been influenced by local COVID-19 risks early in the pandemic and reinforced by local policy choices

In particular, this analysis finds that a key policy difference between the Northeast and other states is the timing of reopening bars and indoor dining, combined with the adoption of mask mandates before the lifting of stay-at-home orders. In addition, this report briefly compares these findings with the experiences of other countries, focusing on Japan’s successful approach to cluster-based contact tracing and public education.

Given this evidence, other states and the federal government must at a minimum work to quickly replicate these conditions throughout the rest of the United States. In addition to mask mandates, federal economic support directed to high-risk businesses and their workers can keep those companies financially viable, protect workers’ health and pocketbooks, and slow the spread of the virus.

The need for both the first and second wave of business closures was never inevitable. Like other countries around the world, the United States could have prevented high levels of community spread through swift and aggressive measures such as testing and tracing or promoted the adoption of personal hygiene habits such as social distancing and mask-wearing. Unfortunately, the federal government’s failure to act early on in the pandemic and states’ decisions to reopen too rapidly mean that targeted closures are again critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. This approach of targeted closures and attacking clusters is what is needed at a minimum in areas with substantial spread—but ultimately, local stay-at-home orders may also be needed to create the conditions under which this strategy could work.”

The report concludes by advancing four basic, but proven effective recommendations to limit the spread of the virus:

  • Closing indoor dining and bars, with the federal government providing these establishments critical financial support to cover fixed costs and keep workers employed
  • Monitoring and imposing greater restrictions on potentially high-risk venues such as gyms and places of worship where people generate higher levels of droplets and aerosols
  • Implementing mask mandates, publicizing the rules, and ensuring that all residents—especially lower-income individuals—have access to masks at no cost to them
  • Adopting cluster-based contact tracing

Let’s hope our national and state leaders are paying attention. Click here to read the report.