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

Durham private schools where 26 students, teachers tested positive for the coronavirus reopened this week

For nine consecutive weeks, Liberty Christian School, a private school in Durham, held in-person classes without a single teacher, student or staffer contracting the coronavirus.

But two weeks ago, 20 students and six teachers tested positive, tagging Liberty Christian with the dubious distinction of having had one of the state’s largest school coronavirus clusters. Wayne Christian School in Goldsboro had the largest cluster with 35 reported cases.

Liberty Christian closed. The K-12 school of 253 students and approximately 40 teachers switched to online classes. School officials worked with the Durham County Health Department to ensure the school was cleaned and that safety precautions are in place.

Principal Kyle Ketner has been unable to pinpoint the source of the virus.

Kyle Ketner

“Honestly, I’m not able to trace that back to the exact event or what took place or what transpired,” Ketner said. “I can’t comment, concretely on that.”

Liberty Christian reopened Monday after school leaders consulted with the health department officials. The school is associated with Liberty Baptist Church.

“We opened on August 19th for in-person instruction and we went nine weeks without any positive cases, and that was a great feat,”  Ketner said. “And then, when it hit, it obviously is going to spread, but then we can’t control what happens outside. There’s a lot of factors that weigh in.”

Despite the outbreak, Ketner said the school hasn’t lost any students to other schools.

“We’re so thankful that we have great kids, great families and we’re trying to keep things as safe as possible, and we’re so thankful right now we don’t have any positive cases that we’re aware of; and the ones [students] that are quarantining are participating in online learning until they clear health department guidelines on their quarantines,” Ketner said.

Ketner knows of no hospitalizations as a result of the outbreak. Some students and teachers experienced mild symptoms, he said, while symptoms in others were more severe.

Ketner said students and staff at Liberty Christian wore masks, social distanced and washed their hands frequently and will continue to do so.

“We’ve taken those [health guidelines seriously] and have done that to the very best of our ability,” Ketner said

The outbreak at Liberty Christian shows how quickly the virus spreads and how schools can suddenly be forced to close.

A Raleigh News & Observer analysis last month showed that private schools have more COVID-19 clusters than public schools and have generally had more confirmed cases in those clusters. Private schools aren’t bound by the same health rules as public schools.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services lists 522 coronavirus cases associated with 36 clusters on its Covid-19 North Carolina dashboard.

Public schools teachers across North Carolina have begun to express concern about returning to schools for in-person instruction as more school boards adopt plans to reopen buildings.

Testing reform group condemns in-person testing mandate for high school students

In-person end-of-course testing mandated by state and federal law will place students and families at risk of contracting the coronavirus, a North Carolina testing reform group warns.

NC Families for School Testing Reform (NCFSTR)  started a petition on asking that high school End-of Course  (EOCs) exams in Math 1, Math 3, English 2, and Biology and Career and Technical Education assessments be waived for the fall 2020 semester.

The petition directs the request to North Carolina lawmakers, including Gov. Roy Cooper, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and State Superintendent Mark Johnson. It had nearly 1,000 signatures early Thursday.

The group also requests that the state ask the U.S. Department of Education to waive in-person testing requirements associated with EOC exams and other federally mandated, standardized tests.

“Bringing children back into buildings as COVID-19 cases continue to rise demonstrates a violation of public schools’ obligation to protect and act in the best interest of children,” the group said in the petition.

NCFSTR wants the state to also waive the provision that EOC exams account for 20% of a student’s grade if a full waiver isn’t granted.

“This year, our high school students have worked under challenging circumstances and without equitable access to resources,” the petition says. “Students and families require flexibility as we continue to grapple with the realities of this public health crisis.”

The group said that forcing students to take in-person exams is unnecessary and will prove traumatic for those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or have siblings or other household members at high risk of becoming sick or dying if they contract the disease.

“Now imagine being faced with the impossible choice to either fail your classes by choosing safety or go into an environment that puts you or your family at risk,” the group said. “Forcing students to choose between failing a high school class and entering a high-risk situation is a trauma that we can choose not to inflict.”

Educators are sharing the petition on social media.

“Teaching looks different. Learning looks different. And many of our kids are just trying to survive. Yet our government still expects our students to take (and either grow or be proficient) our state exams,” Tiffany Kilgore, president of the Wayne County Association of Educators wrote in a Facebook post.

The tests are biased and are used to reinforce the narrative that public schools are failing children, Kilgore added.

“Testing now when our families and communities are struggling is against everything we know as sound practice,” Kilgore said.

The petition comes as the state experiences significant upticks in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

Kevin Taylor, a Stanly County parent and college professor, says the tests aren’t worth risking the health of a child or family member.

“It makes you feel like our government is trying to kill us,” Taylor said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t mean to be too graphic but it’s hard to imagine that any test is worth families and grandparents potentially getting the disease.”

Families can refuse testing but students would be penalized because they  account for 20% of their semester grade.

Chelsea Bartel, an NCFST organizer, said it’s critical that lawmakers come up with a solutions before testing begins early next month.

“For us, it’s not just black and white,” Bartel said. “We’re looking for any creative problem solving, something for all the families, especially those who elected fully virtual and are now going to be asked to send their kids anyway.”

At the same time educators are discussing the wisdom of bringing high school students back to school buildings for testing, some school districts are making plans for students to return to classrooms for in-person instruction.

Elementary school students in many districts have already returned to classrooms for some in-person instruction.

The Wake County Board of Education approved a plan this week that brings back older students for some in-person instruction for the spring semester. Wake County’s elementary schools returned to daily in-person classes on Monday.

In Durham, the school board will consider a plan today to bring back some younger students for in-person classes in January. Some older students would return to school buildings in February under the plan.

The testing reform group said that requiring older students to return to school buildings for tests contradicts the advice of state health officials who shared that adolescents contract and spread the coronavirus at the same rate as adults.

State health officials reported earlier this month that school re-openings for in-person instruction aren’t big drivers of spikes in coronavirus cases.

In an interview this week with CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, urged school system leaders to “try as best as possible” to keep schools open.

“But you’ve got to have not one size fits all,” Fauci said. “You’ve got to take a look at what’s going on in the particular location where you’re at, but we should be trying to keep the children in schools as safely as we can. [That means] getting resources to the schools to allow them to do things while keeping it open, maybe in a hybrid fashion; maybe in doing some physical separation; maybe alternating classes in certain ways. I don’t want to dictate that from here to the schools because I’m not there but do what you can to keep the children and teachers safe but try as best as possible to keep the schools open.”

North Carolina should add at least one ‘minority-serving’ university to its Teaching Fellows Program

Add at least one “minority-serving” college or university to the NC Teaching Fellows Program to increase diversity in the North Carolina’s teacher workforce, the state’s Program Evaluation Division (PED) recommended this week.

There’s currently no such school among the five that offer the merit-based, loan forgiveness program. It provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools.

The term “minority-serving” is used in this instance instead of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to incorporate Pembroke University, which has traditionally served Native Americans.

“Despite achieving slight improvements in the diversity of its teacher workforce during the last few years, a sizable gap remains between the share of teachers of color in North Carolina and the share of students of color,” the PED report states. “A gap exists in every LEA in the state and in every other state in the country.”

More than 80% of the state’s teachers are white, while 52% of students are minorities.

The importance of diversity in the teaching profession has been widely debated in education circles. Some studies show that Black students are more likely to graduate high school and attend college if they have just one Black teacher in elementary school.

North Carolina should also develop an alternative to licensure exams to allow teacher candidates to demonstrate competency, recommended the non-partisan unit that evaluates whether public services are delivered in an effective and efficient manner and in accordance with state law.

Black and Latinx students are often tripped up by the standardized tests they must pass to earn a teaching license.

A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that such tests screen out 8,600 of 16,900 teachers of color each year.

The PED is a unit of the Legislative Services Commission of the General Assembly. The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee (JLPEOC) oversees formal evaluation of state agency programs by PED.

JLPEOC asked the evaluation division to examine the effectiveness of current efforts to increase teacher diversity.

The PED found that North Carolina doesn’t have a dedicated effort to produce, recruit and retain teachers of color, which has led to “wide variation in district-by-district diversity” and that local supplements and geographical factors often play a role in determining if students will be taught by a teacher of color.

“Disparities in resources result in some LEAs and charter schools being able to fund efforts to increase the proportion of teachers of color in their classrooms, whereas other LEAs and charter schools are less capable of doing so,” the report says.

The PED also found that local districts, charter schools and state educator preparation program have resorted to their own efforts to increase teacher diversity and that the effectiveness of those efforts are not certain.

Other states have options for recruiting and retaining teachers of color that North Carolina could emulate, the report said.

The JLPEOC will vote on a bill draft next month that directs the State Board of Education to develop an alternative plan and consider alternative qualifications for teachers to receive a continuing professional license. It also directs the Teaching Fellows Commission to select at least one minority-serving institution to participate in the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program.

Parents were anxious and stressed in the early days of the pandemic, a Campbell University professor found

Miranda van Tilburg

A study by a Campbell University professor conducted soon after schools closed for in-person instruction found parents stressed out and reporting higher levels of anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was led by Miranda van Tilburg, a professor of clinical research at the university.  It was conducted April 10-17, nearly a month after schools closed for in-person instruction.

The researchers contend the findings provide data to make the argument for increased mental health care.

“People might wonder, ‘We know we’re more stressed. Why are you telling me this?’ but in science, we always have to show the numbers,” van Tilburg says. “And I think it also validates a lot of parents and tells them they’re not alone. It’s normal to feel this way during this pandemic. A lot of people are struggling.”

Thirty-nine percent of parents reported that dealing with children was more stressful than before pandemic restrictions. More than one-third of parents worried about the future of their jobs “a lot” or “a great deal,” and 30% of parents found their jobs to be more stressful, the study found.

Nearly half of the parents reported mild to moderate levels of anxiety (44.6%) and depression (42.2%) during that time. The stress, anxiety and depression levels were higher in parents of children with chronic conditions.

“In our study, we looked at the main stressors due to COVID-19. A lot of them were work-related — people were losing their jobs or having their pay reduced. And even if they weren’t affected yet, they were worried about the future of their jobs. Another stressor for parents was online schooling and children being at home without access to their usual social support system. Daycares were closed, schools were closed, playdates were not happening.”

The effect of pandemic-related stress on children was not reported in the study. Van Tilburg — whose past research has focused primarily on pediatrics — says higher stress, anxiety and depression levels in parents can have a negative impact on their children.

“We’ve found that when parents are dealing with something traumatic, how smaller children respond to these events depends on how their parents respond,” she says. “Some children will breeze through traumatic experiences, because their parents are helping them see it in a different light — helping them cope and showing that that, yes, this is hard, but we can deal with this.”

Van Tilburg called the country’s mental health system “underfunded” with a lack of quality providers.

“Knowing we will have this tsunami of kids and parents coming for mental health care between now and the next couple of years, we are going to overtax the system and not really be able to help everyone,” she says. “It’s sad, but it is a reality that we need to prepare for.”

State health officials: K-12 schools aren’t ‘driving’ coronavirus infections

The state’s K-12 schools are not big  “drivers” of coronavirus infections, state health officials said Thursday.

Infections related to K-12 school clusters make up 0.1% of the 285,661 lab-confirmed cases recorded in North Carolina, officials said.

In a child care or school setting, a COVID-19 cluster is defined as a minimum of five positive cases within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.

“Although there are cases and there are clusters in school settings, and we all expected that, we still aren’t seeing our school settings as a big driver of the cases,” State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson told members of the State Board of Education during an COVID-19 update.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) has provided the state board with regular updates to help school boards and superintendents make informed decisions about reopening schools.

State educators expressed concern about student and teacher safety after Gov. Roy Cooper announced that districts could reopen elementary and primary schools for in-person instruction as early as Oct. 5.

NCDHHS provided this data on school cluster-associated infections:

  • There have been 390 total cluster-associated cases among all K-12 clusters (active and complete). 
  • There have been no K-12 cluster-linked deaths.
  • There are 297 cases associated with currently active clusters as of Nov. 3. 
  • There are 34 currently active clusters.
  • There 182 cluster-associated infections among students and 115 among staff.

Tilson noted that infections are increasing in rural counties more quickly than in urban and suburban counties. 

The state is also seeing more proportional infections among blacks, she said. 

African Americans make up 22% of the state’s population, but made up 38 percent of COVID-19 cases and 37 percent of infection-related deaths in early spring.

“That thankfully has leveled off, and now we’re seeing, and we don’t want anyone to get infected, but at least proportional infection in our African American community,” Tilson said.

The rate of infections in Latinx communities has decreased but remains disproportional.

“The surge we are seeing now is in our white, rural population,” Tilson said.

NCDHHS reported 2,859 new COVID-19 cases, which is the second highest total since the start of the pandemic.

Health officials are worried that the approaching Thanksgiving Holiday will drive infections rates even higher.

Susan Gale Perry, NCDHHS chief deputy secretary, asked board members to be role models by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing their hands.

Perry also asked the board to share NCDHH guidance on holiday gatherings scheduled for release next week.

“We want folks to have the safest possible celebration with friends and family during this holiday season,” Perry said.  

NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen gave a preview of that guidance during a COVID-19 update Thursday.

Cohen said the agency will urge people who are sick to not attend or host a holiday gathering. People who do host gatherings, she said, will be encouraged to keep them small, hold them outside if possible, seat family members from the same household together, wear masks when not eating or drinking, sanitize commonly touched areas and get screened for the virus before traveling.