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

Guilford County Schools’ newly hired teachers eligible for signing bonuses of up to $30,000

Newly hired Guilford County Schools (GCS) teachers can earn a signing bonus of up to $30,000 depending on the educator’s level of experience and classroom effectiveness.

The bonuses range from $10,000 for beginning teachers and up to $30,000 for teachers with three or more years of “highly effective” EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System) data showing their impact on students in specific courses, grades and subjects.

The district began to offer the signing bonuses in mid-December to attract roughly 40 teachers needed to help provide in-person instruction when more of its 69,355 students return to school buildings this week for in-person instruction.

Teachers hired through Jan. 31 are eligible to receive bonuses. The district will use money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay for the bonuses. There’s a provision that allows them to use a portion of the money for recruitment incentives.

“We would not be able to offer the bonuses at this scale without the CARES Act money,” Oakley said. “It’s important to note that the money is specifically identified for recruiting strategies. I think they recognized when they dispersed that money to districts that districts would be trying to hire additional staff members.”

Teachers are required to repay the bonus amount if he or she leaves the district before fulfilling a two-year commitment.

By late December, Oakley said the district had received 15 to 20 applications from teachers considered “highly qualified.” It was unclear how many had accepted positions with GCS.

Oakley noted that the December rollout of the bonus program was expected to attract college students who earned degrees last month.

Recent graduates are eligible for $10,000 signing bonuses.

“That’s significant for a recent college graduate,” Oakley said of the bonus.

The district generally hires about 500 teachers each year, Oakley said.

It needs more teachers to help schools observe social distancing requirements. Fewer students in classrooms means more teachers are needed to lead new classrooms created to accommodate smaller class sizes.

“We had every single one of our classrooms evaluated for the number of students that they could hold while keeping six feet apart,” explained Whitney Oakley, the district’s chief academic officer. “When you do that, a classroom that can hold 25 kids now can only hold 14 kids. We have to have another teacher for the 11 students who go into the additional room.”

Oakley said the district will use media centers and other non-traditional spaces for additional classrooms for younger students. School buildings can accommodate older students who will likely return for in-person instruction two days a week, with half coming Monday and Tuesday and the other half Thursday and Friday.

The signing bonuses highlight how districts continue to grapple with challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools to close to in-person instruction in mid-March.

In Wake County, the school board is expected to vote tonight on a proposal to increase pay for substitute teachers needed to keep schools open for in-person instruction, the Raleigh News & Observer reported this week.

Under the plan, substitute teachers can earn up to an extra $425 a month depending on the number of days they work. The Wake school district has had trouble staffing schools due to COVID-19 quarantines. It suspended in-person instruction through Jan. 15.

In Guilford County, the signing bonuses are contingent on educators’ willingness to work in person.

“The need to have some additional staff members who are certified teachers is because of following social distancing requirements,” Oakley said, explaining that GSC Superintendent Sharon Contreas believes that each classroom deserves a certified teacher, even amid the pandemic.

Oakley said she was unaware if any other districts offer such generous signing bonuses to new hires.

GCS competes for teachers against districts in Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties. The district also competes against neighboring Rockingham and Alamance counties.

“Everybody needs good teachers, and so it’s a competition every year, not just during a year that’s unique like this one,” Oakley said.

School districts, charters receive rapid COVID-19 tests as part of pilot program

Seventeen school districts and 11 charter schools have been selected by North Carolina health officials to receive rapid COVID-19 tests as part of a state pilot program.

The K-12 schools will use the tests when in-person instruction is occurring. All schools selected offer either full in-person instruction or a hybrid of remote learning and in-person instruction.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) believe the rapid tests will slow the spread of the virus by quickly identifying infected students and staff.

“This program gives us another tool in our toolkit to slow the spread of COVID-19 across our state and to keep children in the classroom, which we know is vital not only to their academic growth but also to their health and emotional development,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen. “We will learn from these pilot schools and plan to expand the program early next year.”

Mandy Cohen

NCDHHS sent the selected districts and schools more than 50,000 federally funded rapid antigen tests. Tests are to be used for students and staff who have COVID-19 symptoms or who are close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

To be selected for the first phase of the program, district and charter leaders had to confirm to local health departments that each participating school can:

  • Obtain parental/guardian consent prior to testing.
  • Maintain adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.
  • Have trained personnel to administer tests or partner with a local health provider.
  • Report test results to state and local public health agencies.

Selected schools will use the Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen test card, which uses a nasal swab to detect COVID-19 and provides results in 15 minutes without laboratory processing. The swab must be performed by trained personnel.

Students and staff will have access to more than 200 school-based testing locations across 17 counties as part of the pilot. Local health departments in each county participated in the application process and, in some cases, will help with testing.

More information on the COVID-19 testing pilot for K-12 schools is available at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/guidance#schools.

Here’s the list of selected districts and schools by county: 

  • Alamance County: Alamance-Burlington School System (33 locations).
  • Albemarle County: Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies (1 location).
  • Bladen County: Emereau Bladen Charter School (1 location).
  • Buncombe County: Asheville City Schools (11 locations), Buncombe County Schools (44 locations), Francine Delany Charter School (1 location).
  • Cabarrus County: Cabarrus Charter K-12 (2 locations), Cabarrus County Schools (6 locations), Kannapolis City Schools (2 locations).
  • Catawba County: Catawba County Schools (29 locations), Hickory Public Schools (9 locations), Newton Conover City Schools (6 locations).
  • Durham County: Central Park School for Children (1 location), Healthy Start Academy (1 location).
  • Forsyth County: NC Leadership Academy (1 location).
  • Gaston County: Gaston County Schools (1 location).
  • Harnett County: Harnett County Schools (28 locations).
  • Johnston County: Johnston County Public Schools (1 location).
  • Lenoir County: Lenoir County Public Schools (17 locations).
  • Lincoln County: Lincoln Charter School (2 locations).
  • Madison County: Madison County K-12 Public Schools (6 locations).
  • Mecklenburg County: Lake Norman Charter (1 location), Sugar Creek Charter School (1 location), UpROAR Leadership Academy (1 location).
  • Surry County: Elkin City Schools (3 locations), Mount Airy City Schools (4 locations), Surry County Schools (20 locations).
  • Wilson County: Wilson County Schools (2 locations).                                                                     

UNC-TV expands ‘At-Home Learning’ initiative as school districts return to online instruction

UNC-TV is expanding its At Home Learning (AHL) initiative as some school districts prepare to return to online-learning only in the wake of record coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

In Phase II of the initiative, UNC-TV, in collaboration with N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and the Williams and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, will broadcast math and literacy-focused lessons and activities for students in Pre-K through third grade as part of a new programming block titled “Classroom Connection.”

Here’s UNC-TV’s description of the new program:

Classroom Connection will feature PBS KIDS favorites alongside North Carolina educators. This short-form learning series will deliver engaging math and literacy lessons with North Carolina teachers, aimed at Pre-K through third-grade students to support their at-home learning. The Classroom Connection programming block will be available over the air on UNC-TV’s main channel beginning in February and streamed online at unctv.org/ahl. Lessons will also be made available on the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Digital Teaching and Learning YouTube channel and the #GoOpenNC digital repository.

Phase II will also include Teacher Time, a series of short-form STEM activities for early learners presented by North Carolina teachers. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports the series. It will debut this winter on UNC-TV and its Rootle PBS KIDS channel. UNC-TV and PBS have also curated free, standards-aligned videos, interactives, lesson plans and more at unctv.pbslearningmedia.org

UNC-TV launched At-Home Learning in March to serve students and families with limited-to-no access to broadband.

The N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office estimates that 261,000 households in the state don’t have any access to broadband and that 1.6 million families cannot sign up for service or can’t afford it.

UNC-TV hopes to address educational gaps by providing curriculum-based lessons over its broadcast channels, with supplemental online resources, according to a press release announcing the expansion.

Phase I was launched in March with two blocks of standards-aligned PBS programs that air each weekday on UNC-TV.

“It is our greatest hope that through our expansive statewide broadcast reach we will devotedly serve and impact all young learners but especially those who lack access to broadband in our state,” said Joy Potts, director of children’s media and education services at UNC-TV.

Angie Mullennix, director of K-12 academics and innovation strategy at NC DPI, said UNC-TV’s At-Home Learning project provides equitable learning opportunities for children across the state.

“With many students in a partial or full remote setting, the AHL teacher-generated lessons will be high quality, standards-based instruction for caregivers and teachers,” Mullennix said.

Parents are pushing back against mandatory testing during the pandemic

With the state breaking records for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations, parents are worried about sending children into classrooms to take required state exams.

High school students began returning to school buildings this week for state End of Course (EOCs) exams and career and technical education assessment exams.

The state is requiring students to report to campuses to take those exams in person, even if they’ve chosen to take online classes.

But some parents are pushing back against sending children to school to take tests amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 5,700 lives in North Carolina.

Not taking tests could be costly for students. The exams account for 20% of their final grade. Missing the exam could be the difference between passing or failing a course. It could also lower grade-point-averages and cause students to miss out on scholarship awards or getting into top universities.

“We have decided to not send our children back for face-to-face instruction and we certainly will not send them back for testing,” said Antonio Blow, a Greene County pastor and school administrator.

Blow made his remarks Wednesday during a webinar sponsored by NC Families for School Testing Reform (NCFaSTR) and other advocacy groups opposed to in-person testing during the pandemic.

Both of Blow’s children and his wife suffer from asthma, a condition that makes them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

That pre-existing condition is the reason the family choose virtual learning this school year, he said.

“I think it’s a major challenge to be required to have your child to return to an environment and not be guaranteed that their [health] won’t be compromised,” Blow said.

Other parents contend the data collected won’t be useful because the pandemic has negatively impacted student learning.

“I think that this data that we’re so hungry for isn’t going to tell us anything at the end of the day,” said Ilina Ewen, a Wake County parent with two sons in high school. “Any data from this pandemic year is going to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.”

Ewen said state education leaders have prioritized compliance with state and federal testing mandates over student health and safety.

“At this point, to administer these tests, we’re just pouring salt in the wounds of students,” she said. “They’re experiencing unimaginable stress and trauma, and it’s not only the children who are the usual suspects who are living in unsafe conditions, this is all of our kids.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has declined to waive federal testing requirements. She waive them last year due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education agreed last week to ask for a federal waiver to not hold school districts accountable if large numbers of students decide not to show up for exams. The state board will not, however, seek a waiver for testing because it believes the data will be useful in determining how students fared during the pandemic.

The board is also allowing districts to delay fall exams until June 30.

William Munn, a senior policy analyst with the Health Advocacy Project at the NC Justice Center, said it’s “insane” to force children to return to school buildings to take tests while the pandemic rages in North Carolina.

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

Munn noted that a study earlier this year found that children between the ages of 10-19 spread the virus as efficiently as adults.

“This is incredibly concerning as we are contemplating sending students back to classrooms to take a test,” Munn said.

Munn noted that millions of vulnerable senior citizens live in homes with school-age children who may spread the virus to older family members with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. The virus is more likely to cause severe sickness or death in older people.

In North Carolina, there are 88,000 seniors who live with 120,000 school-age children, Munn said. And older people of color are more likely to live with school-aged children compared to their white counterparts, he said.

Additionally, about 25,000 of the state’s teachers also have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk for complications due to the coronavirus, Munn said.

“We are in a very, very precarious situation as a state as it relates to community spread in coronavirus,” Munn said. “It’s definitely not the time to be taking chances with our children and I would urge caution.”

NCFaSTR has collected more than 7,100 signatures on a change.org petition asking state officials to waive EOC exams this school year.

Susan Book

Susan Book, a Wake County parent, urged parents to contact school districts and PTAs to advocate for a “broad” testing window to give advocates more time to organize.

Book also said parents should contact state board members.

“The state board is probably going to tell you that we’re done, we’ve decided, our hands are tied,” Book said. “Please don’t let them do that. They have the ability to do more.”

She said parents should demand the board waive the provision making exams count for 20% of a student’s final grade.

“We don’t need that,” Book said. “We don’t need that on our students. It’s not fair to them. Let’s ask them to get rid of it, and they can do that.”

There’s power in numbers, said NCFaSTR organizer Chelsea Bartel.

“There’s power when parents stand up and say this doesn’t make sense, this isn’t right, it’s putting our children at risk and our entire community at risk,” Bartel said.

 

State auditor: DPI spent federal coronavirus relief money without plan to monitor effectiveness, spending

Staffers distribute meals at a Triangle-area school in March

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spent $76 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds on a summer learning program, nutrition services and other economic support for schools without procedures in place to monitor spending or to determine whether the money achieved desired results, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Office of the State Auditor.

The money is part of $3.59 billion the state received through the federal government through the CARES Act.

DPI received $316 million to support its operations during the pandemic. It passed much of the money on to school districts.

In part, the audit found that DPI distributed:

  • $31 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for the Summer Learning Program without a method to ensure student ability was improved.
  • $37 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds for nutrition services without establishing a method to measure results.

“The Department of Public Instruction [DPI] did not monitor federal funds distributed to public school units to provide economic support in the wake of COVID-19,” the audit stated. “As a result, there was an increased risk that public school units could have misused the funds without the misuse being detected.”

The two items were the focus of the findings but cover only a portion of Relief Funds distributed to the Summer Learning Program and nutrition services.

The total allocation for school nutrition was $75 million to provide meals for students and families after the pandemic forced schools to close in mid-March. The Summer Learning Program received $70 million to provide supplemental summer learning programs for students in grades K-4 whose learning was negatively affected by the pandemic. Approximately $31 million had been distributed as of Aug. 31.

But the audit’s scope also covers $30 million allocated to buy computers or other electronic devices for students and $5 million to purchase computers or other electronic devices for use by school personnel.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI issued a statement Wednesday blaming the State Board of Education for the lack of monitoring in the Summer Learning Program,

“NC public schools had a diagnostic tool to measure student learning to maximize individual student learning opportunities, but the contract for that diagnostic tool was terminated by the State Board of Education, against the advice of DPI subject matter experts,” DPI’s statement said. “The Board’s termination left NC public schools with less ability to measure the impact of these programs.”

The statement refers to the state board’s termination of the state’s contract with Istation, the vendor contracted by Superintendent Mark Johnson to provide North Carolina with the K-3 reading diagnostic tool mandated by the General Assembly as part of the North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation.

The $8.3 million contract award led to months of legal wrangling. Amplify, a competing vendor, filed a protest with the NC Department of Information Technology charging that the contract was unfairly awarded to Istation.

DPI also stood behind its distribution of funds to nutrition services.

“These funds were meant to ensure children usually fed at school, and even those who weren’t, would not go hungry during this pandemic while schools were closed,” DPI said. Additional requirements that some would demand would have likely risked that already vulnerable children across NC would have gone hungry. Put another way, when it comes to trying to feed hungry children during a pandemic, DPI did not let the perfect stand in the way of the good.”

But without proper monitoring, the Department could not detect misuse of Recovery Act funds, the audit said.

Summer learning program

The audit found that DPI spent $31 million on its summer learning program without establishing procedures to ensure that it improved students’ ability to read or do math.

It also failed to ensure that students negatively impacted by the pandemic were identified so they could participate in the program, and didn’t record the percentage of identified students who actually participated in the program, the audit said.

DPI did create a policy that included the program purpose and eligible uses for the money, the audit said, but did not establish procedures to ensure the program improved student ability.

“As a result, the Department [DPI] spent $31 million in taxpayer money without knowing how much or even whether student ability was improved.

DPI should “gather the information needed to determine how much or even whether student ability was improved by the summer learning program,” the audit recommended.

School nutrition

DPI distributed $37 million for nutrition services to ensure school lunches continued for children and families that needed them after schools closed for in-person instruction in March.

The auditor’s office charged that DPI failed to establish a method to ensure the lunches achieved results. Read more