Education

Lawmakers file bills to add school nurses, require mental health plans

Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake

Every school would have a permanent, full-time nurse on duty under House Bill 1203 and a companion bill, Senate Bill 850.

The bill follows two filed Tuesday that would increase the number of school social workers, counselors and psychologists.

School mental health officials expect a greater number of students, teachers and other staff members will return to campuses needing their services.

Schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. They could reopen in mid-August.

“School nurses contribute to the health, well-being, and educational success of our public school children, and in many NC communities they are the only health care professional a child sees,” Ball said in a statement. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be especially vigilant about monitoring the spread of the disease, particularly in a high-contact environment such as a school.”

N.C. School Boards Association President Brenda Stephens added that providing schools with nurses is an essential first step to reopening schools. “This is a critical investment knowing how quickly COVID-19 can spread and given the growing need for healthcare professionals in our schools even before this pandemic,” Stephens said.

Jennifer Sharpe, president of the School Nurse Association of North Carolina, said schools need more nurses to ensure students have access to an “appropriate education.”

Bill co-sponsors include Reps. Donna White (R-Johnston), Gale Adcock (D-Wake) and Josh Dobson (R- Avery, McDowell, Mitchell.) Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) filed the companion bill, SB 850.

Ball also sponsored House Bill 1206, which would increase the number of school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists serving public schools. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 844.

Mental health plans

In a related matter Wednesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Education/Higher Education revived Senate Bill 476 that would require the State Board of Education to adopt a school-based mental health policy.

The policy would require school districts to adopt and to implement a mental health plan. The plan would include a mental health training program and suicide risk referral protocol.

There is no funding attached to the bill, so Sen. Chuck Edwards, (R-Buncombe), asked if school districts would have to pay for training programs.

Bill co-sponsor Deanna Ballard, (R-Wataugua), said the SBE and districts would have flexibility in deciding how to provide training.

But Sen. Jerry Tillman, (R-Guilford), school districts will be hit with an unfunded mandate if the bill is approved.

“That cost will not be minimum,” Tillman said. “When you undertake training of this nature and this magnitude, there will be quite a bit of cost, which is an unfunded mandate on the school boards unless we can find some COVID-19 money to help with this.”

 

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC-Chapel Hill outlines plans for return to campus

UNC-Chapel Hill students will return to campus in early August, skip fall break and end the semester early, according to a Thursday message from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Faculty and staff will begin a phased return to campus June 1.

The plan is similar to those announced by UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T earlier this week. School administrator say the changes are part of an overall strategy to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 during the current pandemic and help get ahead of a “second wave” of the disease expected during cold and flu season.

“The College of Arts & Sciences, along with our schools and units, are reconfiguring in-person course instruction to include physical distancing provisions,” Guskiewicz said in his message. “These considerations mean that small classes will meet in larger spaces, and large lecture classes may be split into smaller sections, delivered remotely or consist of a combination of both. Our goal is to offer as much flexibility for students and faculty as possible.”

“We made the difficult decision to eliminate fall break not only to finish sooner but also to minimize possible virus spread associated with travel,” Guzkiewicz said. “We understand that this new schedule may disrupt your summer plans and want you to know that we considered many options to avoid as much disruption as possible. Thank you for your understanding and know that we will do everything possible to offer flexibility and accommodation as needed.”

The UNC System hopes to finish work on its return plan guidance for the 17 campuses buy the end of this month,  UNC System Interim President Bill Roper told the UNC Board of Governors on Wednesday. Leadership at the individual schools will be given the authority to decide what works best for their campuses, Roper said.

“We are optimistic, leaning in and expecting our students, faculty and staff to return to classrooms, labs and libraries this fall,” Roper said.

From Guskiewicz’s message:

 

Based on advice from our infectious disease and public health experts, who believe we could be facing a second wave of COVID-19 sometime late fall or early winter, we are making significant changes to our operations. On their guidance, we are starting and finishing the fall semester early in an effort to stay ahead of that second wave. As these are unprecedented times, our roadmap will also have off-ramps, and we will modify this plan if conditions change and the situation warrants. The safety, health and well-being of our campus community will always be paramount in our decision-making.

This fall semester will look and feel different from the past. Here are some of the initial changes we are implementing to care for our community:

  • Faculty and staff will return in a phased approach. Research programs and laboratories will begin ramping up on-campus operations June 1. Employees should initially expect staggered work schedules, alternating schedules, reconfigured workstations, remote work and other accommodations to limit density on campus and maximize safety. More details to follow.

  • The first day of classes will be Aug. 10 (professional schools may vary), final exams will be completed by Nov. 24 and students will not return to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday. We will announce plans for New Student Convocation (Aug. 9) and Winter Commencement at a later date. The University will observe Labor Day (Sept. 7) and University Day (Oct. 12), but will eliminate fall break (Oct. 15-16) this year.

  • Students participating in organized co-curricular activities (e.g. Carolina Athletics/ROTC/UNC Marching Tar Heels) will be invited back to campus in a similar phased approach. More details to follow.

  • We will ask our campus community to adhere to our “community standards” and public health guidelines to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

  • Class sizes will be adjusted to allow for appropriate physical distancing; entering and exiting buildings will occur through clearly marked one-way corridors.

  • Time between classes will be extended to allow for necessary physical distancing in and out of buildings, which will impact the number of courses held during typical weekdays. Therefore, students and faculty can expect additional weeknight classes. More details to follow.

  • Up to 1,000 new students who are unable to begin residential learning and living in August may participate in a new experience called Carolina Away. This initiative, still in development, will allow them to learn together in high-quality, digital sections of key courses in our general education curriculum, participate in small group experiences and engage in learning communities that focus on the impact of COVID-19.

  • Many other areas are still in the planning phase. The University will launch Carolina’s Roadmap for Fall 2020 website next week that will serve as a repository of information relevant to fall 2020 operations. The website will be updated throughout the summer as more details are available.

 

Initial reaction from staff and students to Roper and Guskiewicz’s messages was mixed to negative Thursday, with a number of prominent faculty and students from UNC’s flagship school taking to Twitter to criticize what they say is a return that is too hasty and short on safety details.

Commentary, Higher Ed

Fetzer’s long overdue departure offers a ray of sunlight at UNC

Tom Fetzer

There hasn’t been much good news emanating from the UNC system in recent years. Ever since Republican legislators peppered the system’s Board of Governors with of a cadre of cronies and conservative ideologues, most of the news has involved controversy, backbiting, investigations and constant turnover in leadership.

Yesterday, however, there was a ray of sunlight when Tom Fetzer, one of the chief architects of board’s dysfunction, finally took his leave.

Fetzer, a corporate lobbyist, former politician and full-time right-wing firebrand has been an almost constant source of conflict and chaos at UNC.

He’s regularly worked to undermine the concerted efforts of his fellow board members with rogue actions – including destructively inserting himself into the chancellor searches at both Western Carolina and East Carolina, and indeed, seeking the jobs for himself.

He’s been a similarly unhelpful participant in efforts to do away with the “Silent Sam” statue that served as a hateful symbol of white supremacy to so many in the Chapel Hill community.

Fetzer says he resigned to spend time with his family, but the evidence indicates other board members had grown weary of his stunts and self-dealing and forced him out. As PW’s Joe Killian reported:

Fetzer’s announcement comes as the board is finalizing changes to its policies and procedures that would more strictly outline its members’ responsibilities. The policies will include censure and recommendation for removal of board members who overstep their roles. The changes were instigated by repeated problems with Fetzer acting in ways his colleagues said were inappropriate and possibly legally dangerous for the UNC System.

While most of the board was silent on Fetzer’s announcement, two members spoke to Policy Watch about it Wednesday. The members asked not to be identified so that they could characterize closed-session discussions of the board.

“I think the writing was on the wall for him that the board wasn’t going to put up with the kinds of things he was involved in,” one board member said. “We are putting some teeth into our policies and he is not stupid. He’s a very intelligent man. He knows if he continues to operate the way he has, he’s going to end up in trouble.”

Another board member said he believed Fetzer could “read the room” and tell that the majority of the board had no further stomach for scandals from its own board members.

“His personality is just not going to allow him to be on the board without going beyond the lines that most of us observe,” the board member said. “He just has the kind of nature where he’s going to do what he wants to do and he likes to get into it with people, and I think our board is trying to move beyond that. We’ve had too much of it in the last few years.”

Let’s hope this news signals a long overdue shift at UNC away from personal and political agendas and toward supporting the university of the people.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System will not raise tuition, continues to explore fall semester reopening

Students returning for the Fall semester at UNC System schools won’t face tuition and fee increases. But it’s far from certain how many of those students will be returning and how the 17 campus schools will each handle their return.

The UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously on Wednesday to keep tuition and fees flat, as Policy Watch reported was likely earlier this month.

As Policy Watch previously reported,  most of the state’s universities would like to see tuition and fees increased. Just a few months ago, the board was considering an average increase for new, in-state undergraduates of 2.5 percent, or about $165. But chancellors at the individual universities and UNC Board of Governors members said they are reluctant to raise costs for students with so much economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.

“We believed the people of North Carolina had enough burden,” said  UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey in a press conference after Wednesday’s full board meeting.

Randy Ramsey, Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

How the  universities will absorb inevitable cuts is not yet clear. With increased costs and a massive hit to revenues related to the pandemic, the General Assembly is expecting a shortfall in next year’s state budget of up to $4 billion.

“If you’re looking at a state shortfall of $2 – $4 billion, you could be looking at a ten to twenty percent cut to the system, depending upon what revenue numbers come in at,” said board member Marty Kotis in a committee meeting Tuesday.

None of the universities are yet sure how many students will return to campus for the Fall semester, even if every school works out a plan for in-person instruction. Some may choose to take a gap year in light of the pandemic, board members said. Some families, concerned about the safety of returning to campus with the coronavirus projected to see another spike in cold and flu season, may choose to pursue online-only education until there is greater certainty.

“You don’t know if students are going to be there really, until they write that check for tuition,” Kotis said, which means the system can’t be confident of its own revenue figures.

This week, Kotis suggested the university may look at raising tuition on out-of-state students. That would help increase revenues without violating the university’s mandate to be as close to free as is possible for citizens of North Carolina. Read more