COVID-19

UNC-CH waiving tuition and fees for nurse refresher program in reaction to COVID-19 pandemic

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  is waiving tuition and fees for an accelerated version of their online  Registered Nurse Refresher theory course to rehire more nurses onto the front lines of the COVID-19 response.

The UNC-CH nursing refresher theory course usually takes nine months to complete. The accelerated version now being offered by the school online will take three months, according to the school.

“This pandemic underscores an urgent need for experienced healthcare professionals across our state,” said Nena Peragallo Montano, dean of the UNC School of Nursing, in a news release on the school’s decision. “We’re hopeful that by offering this fast-track program and making it more accessible we can help nurses across the state as they continue serving North Carolinians in our fight against coronavirus.”

Recent industry projections show North Carolina will have a deficit of about 13,000 nurses by 2025, the second-largest such shortage of any state.

Nurses interested in the program can visit nurserefresher.web.unc.edu/covid-19 for more information.

Commentary, Education

At time of glaring education needs, state voucher program remains wastefully overfunded

In a year with no budget, one program for K-12 students was guaranteed a funding increase of more than 30%: the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. And once again, that funding will substantially outpace demand for vouchers. As a result, the state is on pace to waste more than $26 million that could otherwise be used to help students in public schools.

Since its inception, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program has exceeded demand for vouchers. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided in 2016 that the program should receive automatic funding increases of $10 million per year through FY 2027-28 when total appropriations for the program will reach $144.8 million.

Additionally, the 2016 changes caused the program to become “forward-funded.” That means next year’s $10 million funding increase is sitting unused in a state bank account this year, unavailable for other functional purposes.

The chart above shows the trend in unused funds in each year of the voucher program’s existence. Unused funds are defined as fiscal year appropriation, plus funds carried over from the prior year, less expenditures on administration and voucher awards.

The out-sized amount of unused funds in FY 2016-17 were largely the result of the decision to begin forward-funding the program that year. Subsequent increases have been driven by voucher demand falling further behind available funding.

Without even getting into the merits of an unregulated voucher program (the merits are few), the continued over-funding of this program is indefensible. As documented in the Leandro consultant’s report published this past December, North Carolina’s school budget is $3.7 billion short (about 35%) of what’s needed to meet the bare minimum of what the state constitution says is required. It’s perverse to leave millions of dollars sitting needlessly idle each year when lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

COVID-19, Trump Administration

NC’s Josh Stein among nation’s AGs to tell Trump: Put the brakes on new regulations

NC Attorney General Josh Stein

WASHINGTON — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and 20 other attorneys general from across the country are pressing the Trump administration to freeze pending regulations so officials can focus on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The attorneys general sent a letter Tuesday to the White House Office of Management and Budget requesting that the administration cease other regulations and focus only on those related to the pandemic.

“The need to prioritize regulations responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic should be self-evident,” the letter states.

The move for a regulatory freeze comes as President Donald Trump pushes to overhaul some significant federal regulations. For instance, the Trump administration finalized new rules Tuesday that will markedly weaken fuel-efficiency standards over the next six years, a rollback of a major Obama-era climate policy.

The new auto emissions standards are just one of the regulatory rollbacks in the works that analysts expected to see this spring.

Other pending regulatory proposals include a rule that would relax standards on mercury emissions, a plan that would limit the scientific studies used to underpin U.S. EPA rules, restrictions on food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a controversial change to how sexual assault charges are handled at schools.

In the past three weeks, the EPA has finalized at least three other regulatory rollbacks, according to tracking from the Brookings Institution. EPA streamlined pre-construction air quality approvals in tribal areas. The agency also revised Clean Air Act requirements for refrigerants. And the EPA instituted a temporary policy suspending enforcement of some environmental rules in response to COVID-19.

‘Daily life … has been upended’

Proposals for new federal regulations undergo a formalized public input process with certain deadlines.

But the attorneys general said responding to these proposals and implementing final rules is increasingly difficult as society focuses on the pandemic.

“While the federal government is mobilizing, state and local governments across the country have been wholly dedicated to responding to the emergency and combating the spread of this deadly virus, and daily life in our communities has been upended by the need to maintain social distancing,” the letter states.

For regulations that are unrelated to the virus, the AGs asked the government to extend comment periods and reopen those that had already closed.

They join a growing chorus of officials and advocates asking the government to pause some regulations.  The Independent Community Banking Association sent a letter to federal agencies Monday asking them to delay all non-COVID-19 related financial rules by at least 180 days.

The group, which represents small community banks across the country, said the virus and its mitigation efforts are taking a toll on its members. They specifically asked federal regulators to freeze six different financial rules, half of which have public comment deadlines in the next two weeks.

Earlier in March, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said comment periods closing after March 1 should be suspended or extended.

And a  group of 170 public interest, labor and environmental organizations also asked the White House to slow down the regulatory process. The groups — including Public Citizen, Center for American Progress, Center for Progressive Reform, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Amnesty International USA — sent a letter to the White House OMB in March asking to hold the public comment period open for non-emergency rules.

‘One area they are not shutting down’

The federal government has altered some operations in response to the unprecedented challenge of the COVID-19 virus.

Federal workers have been instructed to work from home, if possible. Agencies have lengthened some deadlines. EPA has waived some of its environmental reviews. But much of the agency’s work on new regulations goes on.

“I think it is becoming more and more conspicuous that this administration is basically shutting a lot of agency actions and work down, but the one area they are not shutting down at all is where there is a deregulatory impact,” said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen.

The new auto emissions standards that the Trump administration finalized this week roll back what had been a major climate policy for the Obama administration. The Obama rules sought to make noticeable cuts to emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gases in the United States.

The Trump rule will increase stringency of carbon dioxide emissions standards for automakers by 1.5 percent per year through vehicle model year 2026. That’s weaker than Obama’s standards, which required a 5 percent annual increase over that time. The Trump team said those rules would be too expensive for automakers and consumers.

“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to correct the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in announcing the rules.

Wheeler said the new rules would “strike the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry.”

Consumer watchdog organizations and environmental groups say the standards will lead to more polluted air and cost consumers more in the long run at the gas pump.

‘Attacking the public safeguards’ 

“It is wildly inappropriate to do this stuff now; there is a sense of attacking the public safeguards while people are distracted,” said James Goodwin, who tracks regulations for the Center for Progressive Reform.

Goodwin said the EPA rules are particularly problematic because of the missed opportunity to reduce air pollution, which would be a societal benefit as the nation grapples with widespread respiratory illness.

“One of the most important things we can be doing right now is reducing our air pollution. It is up there with building ventilators,” Goodwin said. “But what you see the administration doing right now is quite the opposite. These rollbacks make pollution worse.”

To put these rulemakings out “is functionally equivalent to rounding up spare ventilators and dumping them in the ocean,” he added.

Trump took office with a promise to undo much of what President Barack Obama had put in place. The administration is pushing to get many of these regulations in place by mid-May, to make it harder to reverse the rules if Democrats gain more control after the 2020 election.

A 1996 law called the Congressional Review Act allows Congress to overturn recently completed regulations from the executive branch. Under the act, lawmakers can review rules that have taken effect in the last 60 working days of the congressional calendar.

With a majority vote, they can pass a “joint resolution of disapproval” to nullify a rule and prohibit the federal government from issuing a “substantially similar” one in the future.

Republicans broadly used the Congressional Review Act in 2017, wiping out 16 Obama-era rules on issues from labor and finance to surface-mining, according to an analysis from the Center for Progressive Reform. Before then, Congress had only used it to eliminate one rule: a regulation on ergonomics from President Bill Clinton that was thrown out after President George W. Bush took office.

Commentary, COVID-19

North Carolinians deserve more information about the State Treasurer’s bout with COVID-19

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Let’s make it clear at the outset that everyone should be pulling for State Treasurer Dale Folwell to make a swift and complete recovery from COVID-19 and that no one is blaming him for falling ill.

As the disease continues its rampage through American society, almost everyone is at risk even when taking significant precautions.

It’s also true that hindsight is 20/20. While one wishes that Folwell had been more alert and cautious and not decided to head back to work after returning from a trip to an undisclosed location with his son with illness symptoms he dismissed as a typical cold or allergy, fallible humans often make mistakes. What’s more, while others in his office have subsequently tested positive for the illness as well, we do not know at this point if they worked with or were exposed to Folwell. (As a side note, one fervently hopes that, wherever he and his son went on their trip, Folwell notified as many people as possible with whom he came in contact.)

All that said, this situation raises some important legal issues about which North Carolinians deserve some additional information.

First and foremost is the matter of whether Folwell is actually exercising his constitutional and statutory duties or is even capable of doing so at this critical time for investment markets. Folwell is the sole overseer of a huge, multi-billion dollar public pension fund and has responsibility for a state health plan that serves more than 700,000 members. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on Monday that Folwell has not responded to a text inquiry and a spokesperson said he was “under the care of doctors.” We do not know exactly what that means.

As the same N&O story also reported:

“[On March 26] Folwell said he could not answer a call from [the paper] because of the severity of his symptoms. ‘I am really focused on saving my energy by not talking which (agitates) my cough and lungs,’ Folwell said in a text message directing further questions to [Treasury Department spokesperson Frank] Lester.

On Sunday [March 29], Folwell did not answer a text message seeking an update on his condition.

Lester said Monday that Folwell remains sick and under the care of doctors. When asked if Folwell was hospitalized he said he had no further information he could provide. Lester said he is relying on Folwell’s family to tell him what they’re comfortable with the public knowing….

Lester said there is no succession plan while Folwell is out sick but that Chief of Staff Chris Farr has been leading the office.”

If Folwell is truly incapacitated, this raises important matters of state law. As a prominent North Carolina attorney recently pointed out in an email to Policy Watch, Article III, Section 7, Subsection 5 of the state constitution says the following:

Read more

Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more