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

14 counties seek authority to require schools to reopen, full-time for in-person instruction

School districts in 14 counties have signed on to House Bill 90, which would allow them the option of providing in-person instruction five-days a week to middle school and high school students.

Currently, students in grades 6-12 can only attend school under the state’s Plan B, which requires six feet of social distancing. To achieve that, districts split students into two cohorts. Each cohort receives face-to-face instruction two days a week.

Rep. Pat McElraft, (R-Carteret), the HB 90 sponsor, told colleagues Tuesday that children are struggling academically and suffering emotionally and mentally in remote learning.

“There’s more drug addiction now,” McElraft said. “There’s more kids getting into trouble. There’re more kids failing. Twenty percent of kids in this group of school districts are failing now.”

Pat McElraft

The district’s elementary school students have been safely attending school in-person, full-time since August, and so have students in the county’s charter schools and private schools, McElrath said.

There has been little transmission of the coronavirus, she said.

“Why can’t we do it in our public schools that we trust so much?” she asked. We’ve got to do this. We’re going to lose our children if we don’t.”

In addition to Carteret County Schools, HB 90 would apply to Beaufort County Schools, Brunswick County Schools, Cleveland County Schools, Craven County Schools, Granville County Schools, Haywood County Schools, Jones County Schools, McDowell County Schools, Mitchell County Schools, Onslow County Schools and Yancey County Schools.

HB 90 started out as a Carteret County-only bill but quickly grew to 14 counties. Fourteen is the limit to remain a local bill.

Proposed Committee Substitute (PCS) was re-referred to the House Committee on Rules.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, (D-Wake), questioned the constitutionality of HB 90. Ball said the State Constitution prohibits local acts that relate to health, sanitation, and nuisance abatement. An earlier version of the bill referred to health guidance provided in StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

The PCS did not reference the Toolkit.

“There is nothing about the Toolkit in the bill at all,” McElrath said. “This is not a healthcare bill it’s an education bill.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The House K-12 Committee’s discussion of HB 90 comes as Gov. Roy Cooper and leaders of the Republican-led General Assembly move toward a compromise on how to reopen schools, nearly one year after Cooper ordered them closed for in-person instruction.

Senate leader Phil Berger discussed the looming compromise during a press conference Tuesday. He told reporters that he and Cooper have had several phone conversations about fully reopening schools.

Meanwhile, Cooper acknowledged ongoing discussion with legislative leaders but would not hint at what a compromise might entail.

“I’ve been talking with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders and we are talking about the best way our students can get back into the classroom,” Cooper said. “I think we all share the goal of getting our children back to in-person in the classroom.”

School reopening has been one of the most contentious issues in the long session, even though Democrats and Republicans agree that students are better off academically, socially and emotionally in school.

Senate Leader Phil Berger

Cooper vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill that would require school districts to provide families a full-time, in-person option. The governor argued that Senate Bill 37 didn’t follow state and federal guidance around social distancing. He also complained that it stripped districts of flexibility to change course if there are spikes in COVID-19 infections.

An attempt to override Cooper’s veto was narrowly defeated. Berger has threatened to bring SB 37 back for a second vote but told reporters Tuesday that if Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on reopening schools, the bill would be moot.

HB 90 would also become unnecessary if lawmakers agree on a plan to reopen schools.

In the meantime, parents and students are growing increasingly frustrated with remote learning.

A group of Carteret County parents, students and educators traveled to Raleigh on Tuesday to share their experiences with lawmakers.

William Chadwick, a senior at East Carteret High School, told lawmakers that his mental health and physical health have been tested while he’s been in remote learning.

Academically, Chadwick said it’s difficult to find a rhythm. He thinks being in school five days a week would help all students.

“I’ve got a balanced home life, so I’m able to have that support at home, but think about the kids who don’t have that and are still struggling and not making the grades,” Chadwick said.

Clark Jenkins, chairman of the Carteret County Board of Education, said that his 14-year-old daughter, like thousands across the state, has struggled emotionally while in remote learning.

Jenkins said friends of his daughter reported that she was cutting herself.

“Fortunately, as a dad, I was able to get involved and get her help through the school, through the church and private practice,” Jenkins said. “My daughter represents thousands and thousands of kids in this state who are going through the same thing but don’t have me, don’t have the counselors and don’t have the churches. Please vote for this.”

Christine Hanks, the parent of a Carteret County Schools freshman, said the hybrid model used by older students doesn’t work.

“It sounds like it should be the best of both worlds, right? It’s a good compromise?” Hanks said. “What’s being compromised is our kids’ education and their health and well-being. We need our kids to be in school five days a week. Plan B is a band-aid on a gaping wound.”

Hanks said she trusts local school leaders to make good decisions.

“These are the people I trust, and I don’t take that lightly as a parent,” Hanks said. “I trust them to make the right decisions for my son and our students. They know our community best. They know our educators. They know our students, our schools.”

Senate Democrats, Republicans continue to squabble over school reopening bill

Jay Chaudhuri

Nearly two dozen Senate Democrats have signed a letter asking the State Board of Education (SBE) to use its influence to convince school districts to offer students an in-person learning option.

The letter is addressed to SBE Chairman Eric Davis. It comes two days after Senate Democrats narrowly turned back an attempt by Republicans to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37, which would have required all districts to provide in-person learning opportunities.

The letter was sent by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County.

“We recognize that almost 90 percent of school districts offer or plan to offer in-person learning in the next few weeks,” the letter said. “However, we urge the Board of Education to ensure an option is available in all school districts.”

The veto override of SB 37 failed on a 29-20 vote, one shy of the votes Republicans needed to override Cooper’s veto.

Two Democratic senators who supported SB 37 but changed their minds were among the senators who signed the letter. One of them, Sen. Paul Lowe of Forsyth County, voted against the veto override.

The other Democrat, Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County, is a bill cosponsor. He requested and received a leave of absence from the Monday session where the override vote took place.

Dan Blue

But oddly, on Tuesday, Republicans cited Clark’s absence as the reason for a new vote on the veto override. A motion to reconsider the vote passed Wednesday and the bill will be placed on the Senate calendar for consideration at a later date.

“If Sen. [Ben] Clark were present and maintained his support for the bill that bears his name, the veto override would have passed,” Senate leader Phil Berger explained Tuesday on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop. “If the motion to reconsider the veto override is successful, Sen. Clark will have the opportunity to provide the critical vote necessary to advance his bill over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.”

Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said Democrats and Republicans should be working together on a school reopening bill. 

“If Republicans are serious about getting kids back into the classroom safely, they will stop the political charade and work with us to pass a bill that the governor will sign,” Blue said.

Eric Davis

Meanwhile, Davis told his SBE colleagues that he expects all districts to provide students an in-person learning option by the end of the month.

“We expect all of the public school units in North Carolina are or will be returning students to in-person instruction to finish this school year while managing the needed safety protocols to keep students and educators safe,” Davis said during the board’s monthly meeting.

The Senators who signed he letter said they believe schools can reopen safely because “significant progress” has been made against the COVID-19 virus by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and those in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

They acknowledged challenges remain due to the emergence of new strains of the virus.

“Even considering such possible challenges and others, we believe offering in-person learning can still work, if done properly,” the letter said. “First, we urge you to adhere to the state and federal health guidelines, including following social distancing requirements.”

Cooper vetoed SB 37 because the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and CDC guidelines on social distancing. He said it would also strip districts of the flexibility needed to quickly change course if a new COVID variant hit schools and force them to revert to remote learning.

The senators who signed the letter gave similar reasons for not supporting SB 37.

“We urge the Board of Education to craft guidance with the foresight and precautions this COVID-19 pandemic demands,” the letter said. “We believe the State Board of Education stands in a prime position to urge our local school boards to offer in-person learning to all students.”

Fall test scores show learning remotely was a struggle for North Carolina’s school children

Scores on state tests taken in the fall show that students across North Carolina have not fared well academically during a year when many of them learned remotely.

On the beginning-of-grade third grade reading test, 58.2% of students across the state scored Level 1, which is the lowest level. Three quarters of third graders aren’t proficient.

High schools returned to school buildings in December and January to take end-of-course tests in Math 1 and Math 1, biology and English II. More than half of test takers were not proficient on Math 1, Math 3 or biology exams. Only 41.4 percent were proficient on the English II exam.

The test results are the first statewide look at how students are performing academically amid the COVID-19 pandemic, forced schools to close for in-person instruction. Many of the state’s 1.5 million students have received remote instruction this year.

NC Department of Public Instruction officials shared the scores with the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday.

Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at DPI, cautioned the board to not read too much into the scores, particularly reading scores for third graders.

“We would not expect students to do well on that beginning-of-grade reading assessment,” Howard said. “We expect them to grow and to do better when they go through grade 3, then take the end-of-grade, and then we would expect their performance to improve.”

Howard explained that the state does not usually publish fall testing data. That changed this year, she said, to give district leaders information to compare and to help guide school leaders in their decision-making.

“The point of this data is to provide support and to target resources,” Howard said.

She said test scores for the current school year can never be used to compare scores from previous or future years.

“This year is just so very, very different,” Howard said.

Declining test scores usually means a district has not done everything possible to improve academic outcomes, Howard said.

“But in the context of this year, I think everything is being done and this information kind of grounds us to where we are, to have conversations about where we need to go in providing support and services,” Howard said.

High school teachers and students often say that math is one of the toughest subjects to teach and to learn in a remote setting.

The test scores for Math 1 show that to be true. Sixty-four percent of students were not proficient on the exam this school year, The report shows 48.2% were not proficient the previous school year. There was a sizeable dip in Math 3 scores as well. Fifty-four percent of students were not proficient versus 44.5% the previous school year.

Across exams, Black and Hispanic students already struggling to close an intractable achievement gap, fell even further behind.

For example, 82.7 percent of Black students were not proficient on the Math 1 exam. Last year, 66.9 % were not proficient. For, Hispanics, 74.6% were not proficient this compared to 55% a year ago.

White students performed better than their Black and Hispanic peers but their scores on the exam fell off precipitously. The report shows 54.9% of white students not proficient on Math 1 exams. The previous school year, 36.4% were not proficient.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that 83.6% of the 175,559 high school students — 151,542 students — took end-of-course exams.

“I’m not sure what you expected, but it was much higher than we expected,” Howard told the board.

Participation on the third-grade reading exam was not robust at 67.7%, but still respectable, Howard said.

State board member James Ford asked what parents should take from DPI’s report.

Howard said the exams remain a valid instrument to measure academic progress.

“What has shifted, is the opportunity to learn,” Howard said. “Everyone is doing an exceptional job of making that possible as much as they can with remote instruction and face-to-face instruction. We all know the context of this school year.”

State lawmakers and school leaders agree that many of the state’s K-12 students must spend the summer addressing learning loss caused by a year of remote learning.

The House has approved House Bill 82 requiring school districts to offer a summer learning and enrichment program to help students who have struggled academically during the pandemic.

If HB 82 becomes law, students in grades K-12 would receive “in-person instruction” on specific subjects and “enrichment activities” to offset learning loss and other negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts would prioritize at-risk students.

White teachers urged to use privilege responsibly in fight to keep Durham schools in remote learning

Ronda Bullock

In Durham, plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction continues to play out in dramatic fashion.

This week, Ronda Bullock, chair of education committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People took white, female educators to task for acting like “damsels in distress” and for reacting angrily to the Durham school board’s racially split vote to reopen schools for in-person instruction.

The board’s five Black members voted in favor of reopening schools for young children on March 15.  It’s two white members voted against the plan.

Like most school districts in North Carolina and across the nation, Durham’s teachers are majority white. Most students in the district are Black and Hispanic.

Bullock said she understood teachers’ frustration and anger, but felt some of the comments on social media crossed the line.

“What I witnessed in the aftermath of the vote … was white women educators fuming and unraveling through social media,” Bullock wrote in a Facebook post titled “Dear White Women Educators.”

Bullock urged white teachers to use their privilege responsibly. She said the teachers’ outrage could endanger Black school board members.

“You all have inherited a legacy of white racial violence, and our public conscience is set up to come to your defense,” Bullock wrote. “You need to realize the power of your public outrage, whether or not it’s justified, whether or not it’s rooted in reality.”

Bullock suspects district leaders and school board members received lots of negative email after the controversial vote.

“No, you are not solely responsible for those, but you are culpable for your part,” she said. “Your public outrage at our 5 POC [People of Color] board members is dangerous, and it needs to be checked before someone is hurt. It only takes one extremist reading your posts to feel justified in restoring your honor and safety through some targeted act of violence against our board members.”

Earlier, this year the school board voted to remain in remote learning for the remainder of the school year. Teachers don’t want to return to in-person instruction until educators and school staffs are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

They did not take the news well about reopening schools, Bullock said.

“People demanded the names of the board members, and many were ready to “vote them out,” Bullock wrote. “White teachers even lamented that the board members wanted them to die. Maybe in a race-neutral society, this would seem like righteous indignation, but we don’t live in a race-neutral society. This is America. Race is ever present.”

Teachers who responded on Bullock’s Facebook page received the message well. Many of them asked how they should have responded differently.

“I truly believe that just like when a child is reprimanded for a certain behavior it is important to support them in a replacement/alternate behavior,” one teacher responded.

In an interview with Policy Watch, Bullock said she’s not out to “vilify” white teachers, and that white teachers must figure out what they did wrong and how to respond differently next time.

“White educators need to sit with the discomfort of this letter and wrestle with how they can show up differently,” Bullock said. “It takes time be reflective and they have the capacity to come up with their own solutions as a community regarding how they can show up better next time.”

The school board and educators must keep students at the center of their decision-making, Bullock said.

“Some students are doing well in virtual learning and feel safest there,” she said. “Some students are not doing well (lots of mental health concerns here). Those who are doing well get to stay virtual and those who aren’t, will get the option to attend in person, safely.”

The State Board of Education will receive a report Wednesday on statewide school test results that shows students have struggled academically learning remotely.

The board’s vote to return to classrooms for in-person instruction was largely in response to Senate Bill 37, which would have required all North Carolina school districts to provide an option of in-person instruction.

The Senate’s Republican leadership was unable to garner enough votes Monday to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the school reopening bill, so it is no longer an issue.

The Durham school board will  meet this afternoon to discuss school reopening. The Durham Association of Educators wants the board to consider a return to in-person instruction on April 8, the date middle school students and high school students would return classrooms. The delay would give teachers and staff members more time to be vaccinated.

“Some of you may get angry,” Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “And that is okay. Leadership is hard and being in leadership one has to make tough decisions that not everyone will agree with.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of school reopening bill survives Republican override attempt

An attempt to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a controversial bill requiring schools to provide an in-person instruction option failed Monday on a 29-20 vote, one short of what was needed to send it to the House.

Senate Bill 37 had passed the Senate and the House with help from Democrats, but two of the three senate Democrats who sided with Republicans changed their minds.

Sen. Kirk deViere, (D-Cumberland), was the only Democratic senator who voted with Republicans to override the veto.

Sen. Paul Lowe, (D-Forsyth) and Sen. Ben Clark, (D-Cumberland) had also joined Republicans to pass the legislation, but Lowe announced earlier on Twitter that he’d vote to sustain the veto.

“After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the governor’s veto,” Lowe tweeted. “Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

Senate leader Phil Berger called out the two Democrats who changed their minds after first voting with Republicans to approve SB 37. (Clark did not attend the session to vote.)

Berger said no changes were made to the bill after the two voted in favor of it last month.

The bill required school districts to provide in-person instruction for special needs students and an in-person option for other students.

“All of the issues that are being referred to as concerns about this bill were laid out there at that time, yet folks were willing to vote for the bill,” Berger said. “I would hope that once someone votes a particular way and their constituents know how they voted that they would stick with that and not allow politics rather than science control what they’re doing.”

Berger warned that not reopening schools for in-person instruction could prove disastrous for many students.

“We know that the current situation is damaging children,” Berger said. “No one has said that the current situation is not damaging children, and it’s damaging in ways that in some respect may be irreparable for some of those children.”

Berger said suicides, poor mental health will continue to be major problems if students aren’t allowed to return to classrooms.

He said high school students failing courses or third graders not being able to read at grade level can lead to lifelong struggles that render students unable to care for themselves as adults.

Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake County), acknowledged that students are suffering academically, emotionally and mentally as a result of many schools being closed for in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Blue said it’s critical that North Carolina continues to take a “careful approach” to reopen the state, including schools.

“As a result of that deliberate leadership, North Carolina is in a better position than many other states,” Blue said. “We want to take that same careful approach getting kids back into the classroom.”

Cooper issued a statement earlier Monday restating his reasons for vetoing the legislation.

He said the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on social distancing.

“SB 37 also removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he’s asked legislative leaders to compromise on those issues.

“I will continue talking with legislators and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe,” Cooper said

The governor has “strongly urged” school districts to provide in-person instruction. Last month, Cooper said that 91 of 115 school districts have returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will be in-person learning by mid-March, he said.

“The question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person. They absolutely should.,” Cooper said. “The question is whether we do it safely.”

Before the senate vote, Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a bill co-sponsor and co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, took issue with Cooper’s claim that SB 37 doesn’t follow social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ballard said the CDC guidelines ask school districts to promote social distancing of at least six feet. She said it’s not a mandate.

“I think the CDC is well aware that sometimes the schools are not in a position where they can do the suggested social distancing,” she said.

Ballard noted that the guidelines prioritize in-person instruction over extra-curricular activities such as team sports.

“If it’s safe enough for soccer, it’s safe enough for math,” Ballard said.

She noted that there’s an increase in teen suicide since schools have been closed to in-person instruction.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators tweeted that she looks forward to seeing Ballard “advocate for legislative action of increasing mental health and student support services in this session.”