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. Follow Greg @gchild6645

North Carolina’s public schools to receive more than $170 million in federal aid to address COVID-19 crisis

Gov. Roy Cooper

North Carolina’s public schools will receive more than $175 million in federal aid under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Roy Cooper.

School nutrition programs across the state will get $75 million of the $15.7 billion in CARES Act money allocated by state lawmakers in House Bill 1043.

School districts are set to receive $70 million to launch summer learning programs for thousands of students whose educations were interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis.

Another $30 million will go to schools to purchase computers and other devices for students to access remote learning opportunities. State officials estimate that more than 300,000 students do not have the electronic devices or internet connections needed to participate in remote learning.

Cooper also signed Senate Bill 704, which allows school districts to start school Aug. 17. That’s a week earlier than schools could start ordinarily under the state calendar law.

Meanwhile, SB 704 suspends many of the state’s testing required for the current school year. It also suspends the controversial A-F grading for schools.

“I am signing into law two critical relief bills that will provide assistance to families, schools, hospitals and small businesses as our state battles COVID-19,” Cooper said in a news release. “There is more work ahead of us, and I hope the spirit of consensus behind these bills will continue.”

The bills were the result of a bipartisan effort to address the needs of the state during the COVID-19 crisis which forced Cooper to close schools for the remainder of the academic year.

“The General Assembly crafted a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package that puts North Carolina on the right path to recovery,” Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement. “Gov. Cooper’s signature on these bills sends a signal to our citizens that our state is moving past this crisis and that action is being taken to address their concerns.”

HB 1043 also includes:

  • $50 million to provide personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies.
  • $25 million to support enhanced COVID-19 testing and tracing.
  • $125 million in small business loans administered through the Golden LEAF Foundation.
  • $50 million in health support for underserved communities including rural areas and minority communities.
  • $95 million to support North Carolina hospitals.
  • $20 million to support local health departments and the State Health Lab
  • $6 million for food banks.
  • $9 million for rural broadband.
  • $85 million for vaccine development, antibody testing, community testing, and other COVID-19-related research at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, Campbell University, and Wake Forest University.

And SB 704 includes:

  • An extension of driver’s license and registration expiration deadlines.
  • Waived interest on tax payments normally due in April.
  • Allows pharmacists to administer a COVID-19 vaccine once it is developed.




Education expert Mary Ann Wolf to lead the Public School Forum of North Carolina

Mary Ann Wolf

Education policy and leadership expert Mary Ann Wolf was named executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina on Monday.

Wolf is a senior director at N.C. State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.

She will begin work at the Forum, an education advocacy organization, June 15.

“We are facing a challenging time in education, and the Forum’s policy, research, and programs — all of which have a laser focus on equity — have never been more important,” Wolf said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the talented team, Board of Directors, Advisory Board, many EPFP and Teaching Fellow alumni and education leaders across our state to build upon the Forum’s 35-year history and improve education for all of our students.”

Wolf replaces Michael Priddy, who has served as interim president and executive director since October.

Priddy took on the role after Keith Poston resigned as president. Poston now leads the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed nonprofit group that supports the Wake County Public School System.

Thomas Williams, president of the forum’s Board of Directors, said Wolf is a proven leader,

“Her knowledge, skills, and experience in North Carolina, as well as across our nation, in the areas of research, public policy, and innovative programming are a strong match with our excellent staff and our current and emerging initiatives,” Williams added.

After teaching fifth grade in Henrico, Va., Wolf earned a doctorate in education, administration and supervision from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Wolf received a Master’s of Education from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in accounting and marketing from Georgetown University.

Wolf lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, Brian. She has three children, Marin, Matthew and Andrew, who attend public schools in North Carolina.

COVID-19, Education, News

State extends emergency leave for school employees for one month

School bus mechanic – Image Wake County Public School System

Emergency paid leave for public school employees was extended until May 31 by the State Board of Education on Thursday. 

The news was welcomed by many hourly employees facing the prospect of having to return to work during the COVID-19 outbreak once the SBE’s emergency paid leave policy expired Thursday. 

The policy was first approved by the board on March 27 to “help protect the public health and safeguard the well-being public school employees” during the COVID-19 crisis.  

Under the extension, the maximum number of hours available to employees increased from 168 to 328 from April 1 through May 31. 

Schools buildings across the state have been closed since mid-March due to the spread of the deadly virus. Many students and educators are now engaged in remote learning. 

Gov. Roy Cooper said last week that he’s confident schools will reopen in the fall. And state Superintendent Mark Johnson announced Thursday the creation of a bipartisan task force that will begin to study reopening schools in August. 

Under the emergency leave policy, school districts can continue to pay and to provide benefits to eligible employees who cannot work remotely, who have childcare or eldercare needs or are at high risk of contracting COVID-19. 

SBE attorney Eric Snider said districts will continue to administer the benefit the same way under the extension. 

Snider said the original goal of the policy, to keep employees safe, remains relevant. 

But he said the extension also helps to protect the public schools’ share of more than $400 million in federal money the state is set to receive under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

Under the CARES Act, schools are required to the “greatest extent practical to continue to pay employees and contractors during the period of disruptions and school closures related to the coronavirus,” Snider said. 

“This policy would help districts continue to meet that mandate in federal law and protect those funds,” he added. 

Additionally, Snider said districts have asked for a decision about extending the policy to avoid churn and to give employees some certainty about the benefit heading into the final weeks of the academic year. 

SBE member James Ford was concerned about language in the policy that only “encourages” districts to find remote work opportunities for employees during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I’ve received some correspondence from stakeholders, that in their districts, that this language is perhaps too loose,” Ford said. “It serves as guidance but what ends up happening is the first alternative is to find ways to make you still come in [when] unless absolutely necessary, folks are encouraged to work from home. 

He said employees ordered to work are more often hourly paid workers. 

“Inevitably it ends up breaking out across certain class lines,” Ford said. “Teachers are allowed to work from home, but folks who are classified staff who are often, if we’re being honest, less well-paid, are sort of deliberately being put in harm’s way and being forced to come into these environments that places them at unnecessary risk.” 

He asked to strengthen the language to make it clear that the board wants all alternative to find remote work exhausted before employees are ordered to come in for work. 

SBE member Olivia Oxendine said Ford’s concerns are valid but was reluctant to change the language because districts have drafted local policies and procedures based on the wording in the SBE’s policy.  Read more


Parents, civil rights groups challenge town charter school districts

Mark Dorosin

Parents, civil rights groups and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, are challenging a law approved by the General Assembly in 2018 that gave four towns in North Carolina the right to establish charter schools.

The plaintiffs, who filed the complaint in Wake County Superior Court against the State of North Carolina, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, contend the law “violates the state’s constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of free public education, and equal protection under the law.”

House Bill 514 authorized four predominantly white, wealthy towns in Mecklenburg County —Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius — to create Town Charter School Districts within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District.

It was introduced following a proposal by CMS to redraw student assignment areas to stop the racial and socioeconomic segregation in CMS schools.

HB 514 became law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature because it was considered a “local bill,” only applying to four towns in Mecklenburg County.

“These Town Charters will result in further racial and socioeconomic segregation of students not only by creating majority white and wealthy schools using public funds,” said Mark Dorosin, a managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee. “But also by leaving CMS schools even more segregated by race and class and undermining the district’s ability to address that disparity. Decades of education research shows that segregation hurts all students.”

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP and two parents with children in CMS filed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee and the law firm of Tin, Fulton, Walker and Owen, P.L.L.C.

“Allowing these predominantly white towns to create publicly funded schools that can exclude the Black and Brown students that live in Charlotte is another attempt to push our schools back to the days before Brown v. Board of Ed., Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP said in a news release.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corinne Mack said black students deserve the same high-quality teachers, curriculum and facilities that students from white and wealthier families enjoy.

“We are bringing this lawsuit to protect all students’ rights to an equitable education and to help end the segregation in CMS,” Mack said.


State Superintendent Mark Johnson creates task force to study reopening schools in the fall

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

State Superintendent Mark Johnson on Thursday announced the creation of a new bipartisan task force to plan for the reopening of public schools. They have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnson made the announcement about the new Schools Reopening Task Force during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday.

He said it’s important to get the message to educators, parents and students that the current school closure and remote learning taking place is not the “new normal” in North Carolina.

“We recognize that this situation is not sustainable,” Johnson said. “We, today, are launching the task force on how we will reopen schools in the fall.”

Gov. Roy Cooper said last week that he’s confident students will return to school buildings in the fall.

The task force will include a mixture of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest who chairs the SBE’s Digital Learning Committee, superintendents from across the state and staff from Cooper’s office.

Education-focused organizations, teachers, principals, parents and students will advise the panel.

Johnson said the task force will focus on:

  • Improving remote learning options by making them more user-friendly and practical, including broadband internet;
  • Monitoring and closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and students of color and their white counterparts; that gap might have grown larger because some students need more individualized instruction than online learning allows.
  • Social distancing when students return to school. The need for greater social distancing is likely unavoidable until there is a vaccine. The taks force will help develop guidelines in partnership with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services with the goals of getting as many teachers and students back in schools as safely as possible and determining how to manage extracurricular activities.

“Everyone can understand how difficult it will be to social distance on a school bus or in a classroom or in a hallway or cafeteria,” Johnson said.