Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645
Education

State Board of Education aligns policies with law to distribute $40 million in federal coronavirus aid

The State Board of Education (SBE)  made several moves Monday to align board policy with House Bill 1105 to pave the way for the distribution of nearly $40 million in federal CARES ACT dollars to help local school districts mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

HB 1105, also known as the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Sept. 4. The $1.1 billion relief package provides a one-time payment of $335 to families with a child under the age of 18 to help offset unexpected costs related to school closures.

On Monday, the SBE focused on schools that have reopened or are planning to reopen for in person instruction in the wake of Cooper’s decision to allow districts to bring K-5 students back for in person instruction beginning Oct. 5.

The lion’s share of the $40 million — $27 million — is intended to help school districts buy personal protective equipment for staff and students.

The move comes as some districts, including the state’s largest in Wake County, prepare to send children back into classrooms for in person learning. The Wake County Board of Education will consider today whether to bring students back for limited in-person instruction beginning Oct. 26.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction will distribute the money for personal protective equipment using a formula based on average daily membership (ADM) and one that incorporates whether districts have students in schools for in person learning. Districts that do will receive larger shares of the money.

Here’s how the formula will work:

  • A school district operating in Phase B (a mix of remote and in person instruction) on September 1 will receive three times above the amount it would receive based on ADM if it only offered remote learning.
  • A school district operating in Phase A/B (full time for K-5 and a mix of in person and remote learning for 6-12) on Oct. 5 will receive 2.5 times more money based on ADM than if it only offered remote learning.
  • A school district operating in Phase A/B full time for K-5 and a mix of in person and remote learning for 6-12) on Oct. 26 will receive 2 times more money based on ADM than if it only offered remote learning.
  • Districts only providing remote learning (Phase C) will receive one equal share.

SBE vice Chairman Alan Duncan said a board committee struggled to develop a formula to fairly distribute the money for personal protective equipment.

Duncan said districts that have been in school under Phase B (a mix of in person and remote learning) need more help purchasing personal protective equipment than those that only provides remote learning.

He said he knows of at least one district that reopened under Phase B that has already gone through its annual disinfectant budget.

“We think this is as fair as it can be under all the circumstances with the circumstances being imperfect at best,” Duncan said.

The second largest share of money — $10 million – will help districts buy devices that allow students to connect to remote learning. HB 1105 authorized the additional $10 million on top of $11 million already allocated. Districts that still need devices must apply for shares of the money.

“Some public school units have no additional needs and some do, so the recommendation is to allocate that out to where the needs continue to be,” said Alexis Schauss, chief business officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

HB 1105 also authorized $1 million for Alamance Burlington Schools for school nutrition services, transportation services, technology, remote instruction materials and services, personal protective equipment, temperature screening tools, Alamance-Burlington Connects Initiative, and other goods and services necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law authorized $500,000 based on ADM to Bertie County, Camden County, Chowan County, Perquimans County, Tyrrell County, Washington County for school nutrition services, transportation services, technology, remote instruction materials and services and personal protective equipment.

It also authorized $1.1 million for Communities in Schools of North Carolina, Inc to use for personal protective equipment. It can also be used to help K-12 students with remote instruction, nutrition, family support and mental health issues.

Meanwhile, Mount Airy City Schools is set to receive $115,000 under the law to establish the Smart School Bus Safety Pilot Program.

Education

North Carolina’s elementary schools can reopen for in-person instruction Oct. 5

Gov. Roy Cooper

Citing improving COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that elementary school students can begin to return to classrooms for in-person instruction starting Oct. 5.

Most school districts are only offering remote learning (Plan C). Others are providing a mix of remote learning and in-person instruction under Plan B.

Each district can decide whether to fully reopen schools for K-5 students under Plan A, the option that became available Thursday.

“I want to be clear, Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family,” Cooper said. “Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it. Districts will have the flexibility to select the plan based on their unique situation.”

Cooper said Plan A is now an option because “North Carolinians have doubled down on safety and prevention measures” to stabilize key COVID-19 metrics such as hospital capacity, which has remained stable.

“We have shown that listening to the science works,” Cooper said. “As a result, our key numbers have stabilized or even decreased and in some instances for a sustained period.”

He said that research showing that young children spread the virus at a lower rate than older children and adults also factored into the decision.

Middle schools and high schools will continue to operate under Plan B or Plan C.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) said Cooper is “flirting with danger.”

“Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Tamika Walker Kelly

Walker Kelly said the NCAE won’t recommend teachers return to classrooms where it’s difficult to practice social distancing unless they are properly fitted with a N-95 mask to protect their health and the health of those around them.

Cooper’s announcement came a day after state Republicans and a group of parents demanded that schools be reopened fully for in-person instruction.

On Thursday, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said Cooper’s decision is a step in the right direction but insisted that all parents be given the option of sending children to school for in-person instruction full time.

“His new plan ignores the needs of low-income and exceptional students in middle and high schools for in-person instruction,” Berger said in a statement. “We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on ‘science.’ What is the science that says it’s safe for 5th graders to be in school full time, but it’s not safe for 6th graders?

In recent weeks, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who’s challenging the democratic governor in the Nov. 3 General Election, has grown increasingly critical of Cooper’s decision to not fully reopen schools.

“These schools know how to open safely,” Forest said during a press conference Wednesday. “They can follow the lead of schools all over the world and do that. They can make it safe for their administrators. They can make it safe for their teachers. They can make it safe for their students. Most importantly, they can let the parents decide.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, also a Republican, applauded Cooper’s decision, which he said moved the state closer to allowing families to return to classrooms from in-person learning full time.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger

“While the governor, the State Board of Education, and I have our differences, I join with them today to encourage local school board members to take advantage of this change and open all schools safely,” Johnson said.

Under Plan A, teachers, students and staff will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing. Students and staff must also pass daily temperature checks and other health screenings.

Forest has been critical of the mask requirement.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, said masks are needed to slow the spread of the virus.

“This is a science and research-based decision, not an opinion,” Cohen said. “That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of 67,000 pediatricians, recommend masks for all children [age] two and up.”

Even before Cooper’s announcement Thursday, some school districts operating under Plan C had begun to discuss opening school buildings for in-person instruction.

The Wake County school system was weighing different options to bring students back for in-person instruction.

Durham Public Schools said in a statement Thursday that it will continue to consider the available options.

“Durham Public Schools is continuing to work with our local health department, medical experts from the ABC Science Collaborative, and a task force of district administrators and teachers in order to assess what is necessary to open our schools safely to students and staff,” district officials said. “We will present survey information to our board on Thursday, Sept. 24, providing insight into our families’, students’, and employees’ satisfaction with remote instruction and desires for in-person learning.”

Education, News

Senate leader Phil Berger attacks education leaders over their support for Black Lives Matter at School

Sen. Phil Berger

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), continued his attacks on state educators Monday, this time targeting the N.C. Association of Educators’ (NCAE) leadership for its support of Black Lives Matter at School, a national coalition of teachers that promotes racial justice in education.

Berger’s criticism of the “far-left” NCAE came days after its president, Tamika Kelly Walker, posted a tweet urging educators to sign a petition pledging to participate in the coalition’s “Black Lives Matter at School’s Year of Purpose” by initiating social justice and political activities in classrooms.

He contends that support for the coalition creates a “credibility crisis” for NCAE because the coalition’s motto is written by Assata Shakur, the former Black Liberation Army member convicted of being an accomplice in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey State Trooper.

Tamika Walker Kelly

Shakur escaped prison and now lives in Cuba where she was granted political asylum in the early 1980s.

“The organization’s motto, written by the cop-killer terrorist, comes from a larger work in which [Assata] Shakur also calls cops “pigs” and says murdered officers died “in the so-called line of duty,” Berger said on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop. “Those are the facts.”

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, jumped into the fray.

“It’s despicable that the far-left NCAE would encourage North Carolina teachers to pledge their support for a movement that openly embraces a cop-killing terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list,” Ballard said. “Police officers in Los Angeles were just targeted for assassination, and this movement honors a cop-killer. The NCAE should withdraw its support, apologize to parents and teachers, and renounce violent attacks on police.”

Ballard is referring to the shooting of two deputies in Los Angeles over the weekend. An unknown gunman critically wounded the deputies in an ambush-style attack while they sat in a patrol car.

Like Ballard, Berger also called on the NCAE to withdraw its support from the coalition.

Here’s what he tweeted:

“The movement endorsed by @NCAE openly embraces cop-killing terrorist Assata Shakur. Her words are the movement’s MOTTO. Two cops were just targeted for assassination in LA. Will the @NCAE retract its support for a movement featuring a cop-killer on FBI’s Most Wanted List? #ncpol

The NCAE pushed back:

“@BLMASchool is a national coalition organizing for racial justice in education that has nothing to do with the garbage you’re spouting. Get your facts straight, Phil.”

And Walker Kelly shared this statement Monday:

“If Sen. Berger wants to spend his remaining days in power issuing rambling diatribes belying how truly terrified he is of any type of organized resistance to his conservative agenda, he is welcome to do so,” Walker Kelly said. “But we all know what desperation looks like, and he need look no further than the end of his own pen to find a ‘credibility crisis.’ We will continue to affirm that Black Lives Matter, prioritizing the safety of educators and students, and fighting for the public education that all students deserve.”

Educators in Seattle founded Black Lives Matter at School four years ago. One week each February educators who support the coalition teach students about structural racism, Black history and anti-racists movements.

In recent weeks, Berger and Ballard have been increasingly critical of public schools and North Carolina educators.

Last Month, they accused Durham Public Schools of levying an unconstitutional tax on parents by charging for children to attend the district’s “learning centers,” which are day-long versions of the district’s before-school and after-school programs. The two contend such fees are illegal.

Berger has also used his website to encourage parents to apply for grants through the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to send their children to public schools.

He used Monday’s complaint against Black Lives Matter at School to promote school choice.

“Nobody disputes that all children deserve an equal education,” Berger said. “In fact, it’s that very principle which drives Republican support for school choice: All families, not just the wealthy elite, deserve the privilege of parental school choice.”

 

Education

Gov. Cooper announces $40 million partnership to improve student access to remote learning

Two events this week highlight continuing efforts to ensure North Carolina students have access to high-speed internet service needed for remote learning during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the release of $40 million to fund NC Student Connect, a new partnership created to help eliminate remote learning barriers that exist for tens of thousands of students.

Most of the money — $30 million – will be spent to distribute 100,000 wireless high-speed hot spots to students who needed them to connect to virtual classrooms.

“Long before COVID-19, expanding access to high-speed internet has been a top priority for my administration, and this pandemic has made the need even more urgent,” said Cooper said in a statement. “NC Student Connect will make critical investments in high speed internet access and remote learning that will help students, health care and businesses in our state.”

When school reopened in August, superintendents estimated that at least 100,000 students still lacked a reliable internet connection at home, Cooper said.

Here’s how the remaining $10 million will be spent:

  • $8 million to create accessible sites in convenient locations across the state such as school parking lots, municipal areas, and state parks, museums and historic sites. The NC Student Connect sites will provide free high-speed internet for students to connect to the Internet to download lessons and complete assignments offline.
  • $2 million for educator professional development, parent training and student involvement in a spectrum of activities that go into effective remote learning. More than 1,300 educators from rural North Carolina already participated in a virtual conference focused on remote learning to help them be better prepared to teach throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

NC Student Connect is a partnership across state government including the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative and the NC Business Committee for Education, an educational nonprofit in the governor’s office.

Most school districts are providing students with remote learning to start the school year.

The pandemic has forced districts to be creative to meet the needs of students having trouble connecting to class instruction.

Guilford County Schools announced this week that it will open 62 schools two Saturdays this month to use as internet hubs by students with limited broadband access. The hubs are in addition to 13 Learning Centers available to students during the week.

“We understand that not all of our families have access to broadband connectivity, and not all parents are able to drive their children to the learning centers during the week due to work conflicts, said Superintendent Sharon Contreras. “We hope these hubs will help eliminate some of those barriers during the remote learning period.”

District leaders hope the hubs will prevent learning loss for students without reliable broadband access. The hubs will continue to operate after the first two weeks if participation rates indicate there’s a need.

Education

Wall Street Journal sees North Carolina’s expansion of private school vouchers as ‘victory’ for school choice movement

The Wall Street Journal (WJS) and school choice advocates are hailing as a major “victory” Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to sign off on a $1.1 billion COVID-19 relief package that also expands the state’s controversial school voucher program.

Cooper, a Democrat, signed the Republican-backed Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 into law on Friday.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSJ editorial published Sept. 7 under the headline “A Carolina Victory for School Choice.“

“The victory is all the more significant because the state’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, came into office vowing to eliminate the program. In late August he proposed taking $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program while spending $360 million for a $2,000 bonus for all public school teachers.”

The editorial also heralded private schools for returning to classrooms for in-person instruction. A majority of North Carolina’s public K-12 schools are providing remote learning until the coronavirus is controlled.

“North Carolina’s decision comes as Covid-19 has exposed the union-first, students-last priorities of traditional public schools. Many union schools refuse to return to in-person learning, while charters and private schools are doing so. Parents worried about their children falling behind are learning that the union schools’ take-it-or-leave-it approach leaves them without options.”

It’s worth noting that North Carolina prohibits collective bargaining by public employees. The NC Association of Educators [NCAE] is a professional development and advocacy organization.

Cooper didn’t specifically address the voucher program in a statement announcing that he would sign the bill. But the governor did note that he didn’t support “every provision” in the bill.

“This budget followed my recommendations on school enrollment funding and invested in important areas like high speed internet access and disaster relief, but legislators should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small businesses, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “Obviously I don’t agree with every provision, but the funding for pandemic support in this budget is critical and must move forward.”

Under the law, families with 150% of the annual income needed to qualify for free-and reduced-price lunches would be eligible for scholarships. Currently, families at 133% qualify for the scholarships.

“There is nothing better or smarter than providing families with a choice in education so that they, too, can access the schools previously reserved for the wealthy and elite,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, said earlier this month after Democrats argued that the state should put voucher money to better use. “How condescending it is to tell low- and middle-income parents, many of them at their wits’ end juggling work and virtual schooling, that their child’s chosen education path has been reallocated to ‘better, smarter’ uses. Parents, including Black soon-to-be-former Democrats, overwhelmingly support Opportunity Scholarships.”

Ballard has been quoted in media reports saying a family of four earning $72,000 a year would now be eligible for the scholarships. However, Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach at NC State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that oversees the voucher program, could not confirm that amount on Tuesday.

“We have not yet updated our income eligibility guidelines, so no, I can’t do [confirm] that just yet,” Marker said in an emailed response to questions about the guidelines.

For the 2020-21 school year, a family of four qualifies for free school lunches if its annual income is at or below 130% of the poverty rate. A family with an annual income as high as $34,060 qualifies for free school lunches.  So, a family with an annual income of as high as $51,090 would presumably qualify for scholarships at 150% of the amount required for a student to qualify for free lunches. Under the old guideline, it would have been $51,090 at 133%

The picture brightens somewhat for a family of four that qualifies for reduced-priced lunches. That family could, as Ballard pointed out, earn up to $72,705 and still qualify for opportunity scholarships. A family of four must have an annual income between 130% and 185% of the poverty rate to qualify for reduced-priced lunches. At the top end, a family of four can qualify for reduced-priced lunches earning as much as $48,470 a year; and 150% of that amount is $72,705. It would have been $64,465 for a family of four under the old guidelines.

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay for part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been the target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

The plaintiffs include parents from Durham, Cumberland, Randolph and Wake counties.

“Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in July. “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution.”