State health officials say expansion of COVID-19 testing in schools would help slow infections

State health officials want to expand testing for COVID-19 in school districts as more students, teachers and staff return to classrooms this month.

Officials are focusing on “screen testing,” which is done on a regular basis, usually weekly, as opposed to diagnostic testing performed on individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

“We do have some evidence from national studies that the weekly testing of students, teachers and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50%,” Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Thursday.

Perry’s comments came during a State Board of Education meeting where she announced plans to apply for a share of $10 billion in federal money President Joe Biden’s administration earmarked for to help schools expand COVID-19 testing for students, teachers and staff as part of the effort to help schools reopen full-time for in-person instruction.

The money is part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes $122 billion for K-12 schools.

“These screening tests provide another layer of mitigation and protection, another tool in the tool box that we are strongly recommending that schools and districts consider implementing and we’re going to try to make that process easier for schools moving forward,” Perry said

Aditi Mallick, director of the state’s COVID-19 Operations Center, said the federal money will allow NCDHHS to move to Phase 3 of its testing program for K-12 school, which expands testing to more schools across the state.

Phase 1 was a pilot program utilizing diagnostic testing at selected schools. It ran from December 2020 through February 2021. Phase 2 began in March and included diagnostic testing and screen testing.

More than 63,255 tests were distributed to school districts, charter schools and private schools during Phase 2. Of testing results reported to NCDHHS, 181 of 1,213 were positive. Results were limited because some districts reported them to local health departments and NCDHHS were unable to determine whether those result were from schools or other settings.

“Our sincere hope is that schools will be excited to take advantage of this opportunity, and certainly the infusion of new funding helps solve for potential historical barriers of staffing or reporting or availability of tests,” Mallick said, noting that participation will be optional for districts.

Districts will have three screen testing options, Mallick said.

They will be able to contract with a NCDHHS approved vendor for testing. The vendor will be named by fall 2021.

NCDHHS will also provide free screening tests or diagnostic tests to schools that request them or districts can develop their own approach to testing without state involvement.

The move to expand testing comes as infection rates have plateaued or increased slightly across all age groups except residents 65 or older in which case rates are declining.

Currently, there are 45 active clusters in schools, which is a 30% decline from last month. Thirty-four clusters are at public schools and 11 at private schools.

As of April 4, there has been 1,840 infections associated with K-12 clusters. Students made up 1,205 case and staff 635.

Perry said the state cannot let its guard down.

“We are seeing rising numbers in other parts of the country and across the world,” she said. “We know that this virus is still very much out there and new more infectious variants are spreading and we all need to continue to be careful and responsible as we race to get North Carolinians vaccinated.”

Senate bill would increase maximum amount families receive for school vouchers

In a move that’s sure to spark controversy, Senate Republicans on Wednesday filed a bill to increase school voucher awards by $2,300.

Parents use state vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Currently, families can receive awards of up to $4,200. Senate Bill 671 would push the maximum award to $6,500.

Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, sponsored SB 671.

“It’s clear that after a year of being forced into ‘virtual learning’ working-class families want a bigger say in their child’s education and Opportunity Scholarships can give them back their voice,” Lee said in a statement.

The bill would increase income eligibility from 150% to 175 % of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

“Under this bill, a single mother making less than $56,400 would be eligible to receive an Opportunity Scholarship for her child,” according to a statement posted on Senate leader Phil Berger’s website.

The bill also combines the Special Education Scholarships for Students with Disabilities and Personal Education Savings Accounts. The two would become the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities.

SB 671 comes in the wake of House Bill 32 that would substantially expand eligibility for school vouchers by no longer requiring voucher recipients to be enrolled in a public school unless they are entering kindergarten or first grade.

HB 32 would also increase the value of vouchers by setting the maximum award at 70% of the state average pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year for the 2022-23 school year, then raising the maximum award to 80% of the state average pupil allocation in the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

The state average per public allocation is currently $6,585, so the maximum voucher award would be more approximately $4,610 next school year at 70% of the state average.

“The changes would funnel taxpayer funds to increasingly subsidize payments to families who were already planning to enroll in private schools,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project wrote in February. “The bill is estimated to cost the state $159 million over the next nine years.”

Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2020 budget proposal would have effectively killed the voucher program by cutting it by $85 million to help pay for other education and teacher support programs.

Cooper has said the voucher program lacks accountability.

Ballard said Cooper wants to deny low-and middle-income families a chance to attend better schools.

“Gov. Cooper is withholding access to educational opportunities, ensuring that private education is only accessible to the wealthy,” she said. “For all the talk about equity and fairness, ending the Opportunity Scholarship program would only hurt the students Gov. Cooper claims to care about the most.” 

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay 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 a 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 based on religion and sexual orientation.

Editorial: State lottery suffers the very fate that critics forecast

“We told you so.”

That’s the obvious assessment that critics of North Carolina’s “Education” Lottery can utter these days a decade and a half after its founding.

As today’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com explains, everyone knew the notion that lottery dollars would somehow boost education funding above where it would have been and not be used to fund tax cuts was always a fiction. And now there’s proof that this is exactly what has happened.

In the most recent budget, NO lottery funds were used for additional teaching position, but $385.9 million from the lottery was spent on “non-instructional support personnel.”

…So, at a time when there’s a huge need for additional classroom space and smaller classroom sizes – to help adhere to current pandemic health needs along with providing students with more attention from teachers to make up for in-person classroom time lost – the money is going to basic operations. That is not what lottery advocates intended. That is just what lottery critics – Berger and Moore among them – predicted would happen.

A decade ago, partisan critics called the lottery “Bev’s piggybank” because of proposals during Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration to use lottery funds to shore up battered state revenues during the Great Recession.

Now, of course, everyone involved in the state budget process is participating in this same shell game.

As the editorial goes on to note in conclusion, this situation is especially outrageous when the state is under a court order to comply with the state constitution’s mandate to provide every public school student with a sound basic education.

For nearly 25 years North Carolina has been operating public schools, the highest court in the state has ruled, in an unconstitutional matter failing to meet the promise of providing a quality education to every child.

It is past time to end the lottery shift-shaft. Put the lottery money, as promised, back into enhancing education by cutting class size, providing funding to build more school facilities, expand pre-k education to all children. Stop the corporate tax giveaways and fully fund basic education needs including the Leandro action plan – a common sense roadmap to a quality education for every child.

Click here to read “Ignoring their own warnings about the N.C. lottery.”

Religious fundamentalism threatens American public education (and a lot more)

Betsy DeVos is gone now, but for North Carolina,“Devosism,” is not. Throughout her tenure as education secretary, DeVos sought to convince Congress to allocate $5 billion in tax credits to fund scholarships to private, religious, and homeschools. These “scholarships”—vouchers—were a central theme of her time in office and, now, Rebecca Klein notes, numerous state legislatures are continuing to push this agenda into 2021. The Network for Public Education flagged efforts in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire to dramatically expand voucher programs. In North Carolina, the legislature moved during its first week back in session this year to expand vouchers.

Because vouchers siphon money away from cash-starved public schools, it is often assumed that this is a public school problem. In North Carolina, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) has led the fight, along with a parents group that filed suit against the state’s voucher program, arguing it was unconstitutional.

This battle, however, is about substantially more than “choice” or even privatization, and concerns everyone in the academy—every historian, scientist, anthropologist, political scientist, theater professor, and the rest—because Betsy DeVos is the proud standard-bearer of the Christian Dominionists, part of a once-fringe set of religious extremists now at the heart of the effort to reshape American public education. DeVos and other Dominionists see the school system as the ultimate symbol of communal liberalism and want it replaced with private schools that will usher in a new kingdom of God.

Betsy DeVos

These vouchers, therefore, threaten more than colleges of education or the public schools they ostensibly serve. The curricula of many of these schools threaten American ideals of multiculturalism, democracy, and science. A study conducted by North Carolina’s League of Women Voters examined what was being taught in these voucher-funded “schools” in the state and discovered that “76.7% of voucher funding is going to schools with a literal biblical worldview that affects all areas of the curriculum…[and] educators have concluded that this biblical worldview curriculum does not prepare these students for 21st century colleges or careers.”

Indeed, the curricula seem designed to prepare students for life in the thirteenth century. Read more

Editorials agree: Berger and Truitt swing and miss with new phonics push

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Spring is here and, sadly, that means it’s time for new round of cheap, “quick fix” education policy proposals from conservative politicians.

A few years back, end-of-grade testing was the big idea. Then came charter schools, private school vouchers, school uniforms, school report cards and Senate leader Phil Berger’s “read-to-achieve” program. None of these schemes has made a meaningful impact.

And now comes yet another magic solution: phonics.

State superintendent Catherine Truitt and Berger recently proposed mandating the use of something called “the science of reading” – of which phonics is a big part – in early grade reading instruction. The proposal is included in their new “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” proposal.

Unfortunately, dozens of education scholars reject such an approach. Phonics can be a useful tool, they say, but they also note that all children are different and warn against one-size-fits-all solutions.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer explained in a fine editorial yesterday:

There is considerable division in the education field about whether a renewed emphasis on phonics is the best way to teach reading. Gay Ivey, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor and highly regarded expert on literacy, said phonics is a necessary tool, but it is not a cure-all for lagging reading skills. She said the approach has been tried, particularly under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Ivey told the Editorial Board. She said children must learn not just how to sound out words, but also how to assess the words’ meanings and how they connect. Reading instruction, she said, should not be just mechanical. It should also ignite a love of reading that comes with comprehension and the ability to imagine characters and situations.

“I worry that people have put a lot of faith in this one narrow view and, under this bill, we all will have to subscribe to it,” she said. “It’s worrisome because we’ve been down this road before.”

Of course, the real answer to what ails our schools lies not in micromanaging currcula from Washington or Raleigh, but in a sustained commitment to invest – in teachers, administrators, facilities, and children themselves.

As this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com puts it in taking Truittt to task:

The reality is that there is a far more comprehensive, well-thought out, approach to meeting the state education needs that Truitt has been all too silent about but should be at the forefront of her education agenda.

She should be in the forefront – out ahead – in pushing the legislature to adopt the comprehensive plan that has been developed by bringing together the various parties in the Leandro court case in to meet the State Constitutional right to give every child access to a quality education.

Until state leaders finally wake up to this reality that’s been staring them in the face for deacdes, the quick and easy fixes will continue to fall flat.