Sweeping voting rights package passes U.S. House

Senate Democrats, Republicans continue to squabble over school reopening bill

Jay Chaudhuri

Nearly two dozen senate Democrats have signed a letter asking the State Board of Education (SBE) to use its influence to convince school districts to offer students an in-person learning option.

The letter is addressed to SBE Chairman Eric Davis. It comes two days after senate Democrats narrowly turned back an attempt by Republicans to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37, which would have required all districts to provide in-person learning opportunities.

The letter was sent by Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Democrat from Wake County.

“We recognize that almost 90 percent of school districts offer or plan to offer in-person learning in the next few weeks,” the letter said. “However, we urge the Board of Education to ensure an option is available in all school districts.”

The veto override of SB 37 failed on a 29-20 vote, one shy of the votes Republicans needed to override Cooper’s veto.

Two Democratic senators who supported SB 37 but changed their minds were among the senators who signed the letter. One of them, Sen. Paul Lowe of Forsyth County, voted against the veto override.

The other Democrat, Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke County, is a bill cosponsor. He requested and received a leave of absence from the Monday session where the override vote took place.

Dan Blue

But oddly, on Tuesday, Republicans cited Clark’s absence as the reason for a new vote on the veto override. A motion to reconsider the vote passed Wednesday and the bill will be placed on the Senate calendar for consideration at a later date.

“If Sen. [Ben] Clark were present and maintained his support for the bill that bears his name, the veto override would have passed,” Senate leader Phil Berger explained Tuesday on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop. “If the motion to reconsider the veto override is successful, Sen. Clark will have the opportunity to provide the critical vote necessary to advance his bill over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.”

Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, said Democrats and Republicans should be working together on a school reopening bill. 

“If Republicans are serious about getting kids back into the classroom safely, they will stop the political charade and work with us to pass a bill that the governor will sign,” Blue said.

Eric Davis

Meanwhile, Davis told his SBE colleagues that he expects all districts to provide students an in-person learning option by the end of the month.

“We expect all of the public school units in North Carolina are or will be returning students to in-person instruction to finish this school year while managing the needed safety protocols to keep students and educators safe,” Davis said during the board’s monthly meeting.

The Senators who signed he letter said they believe schools can reopen safely because “significant progress” has been made against the COVID-19 virus by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and those in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

They acknowledged challenges remain due to the emergence of new strains of the virus.

“Even considering such possible challenges and others, we believe offering in-person learning can still work, if done properly,” the letter said. “First, we urge you to adhere to the state and federal health guidelines, including following social distancing requirements.”

Cooper vetoed SB 37 because the bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NC Department of Health and Human Services and CDC guidelines on social distancing. He said it would also strip districts of the flexibility needed to quickly change course if a new COVID variant hit schools and force them to revert to remote learning.

The senators who signed the letter gave similar reasons for not supporting SB 37.

“We urge the Board of Education to craft guidance with the foresight and precautions this COVID-19 pandemic demands,” the letter said. “We believe the State Board of Education stands in a prime position to urge our local school boards to offer in-person learning to all students.”

One year later: UNC health experts reflect on ‘shining examples’ and moving past the pandemic

Today marks exactly one year since the first COVID-19 patient was identified in North Carolina.

An invisible virus no one had ever heard of 12 month ago has registered more than 865,000 cases and stolen 11,363 lives.

Dr. Wesley Burks

Dr. Wesley Burks, the CEO of UNC Health and Dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said Wednesday’s anniversary was a time to reflect on the hard work, the fear, and the sense of purpose borne out of the pandemic.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen. We definitely didn’t think we’d still be here today talking about it, ” confided Burks.

“But through all of this work, we are different – both collectively and personally.”

Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Family Medicine, said the COVID crisis underscored for her the struggle many marginalized communities face.

“What this COVID pandemic has done has shone a spotlight on health inequities that have existed in this country for decades,” explained Dr. Malchuk. “But it is the first time a global illness has brought these things to the forefront and grabbed everyone’s attention.”

Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk

Malchuk says she is now using her position as a woman and a person of color, who grew up in a lower socioeconomic background, to educate her patients about COVID and encourage them to get vaccinated.

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, said her takeaway
over the last 12 months was the promise and impact of tele-psychiatry in reaching those in crisis.

“We are now able to provide mental health care broadly across the state, to reach people in ways never [seen] before,” Meltzer-Brody said.

“Collectively we are able to take care of behavioral health needs much earlier, with experts, to hopefully decrease suffering and prevent long-lasting damage.”

Dr. Melissa Miller, director of UNC’s Clinical Molecular Microbiology lab, shared her concerns for the toll this has taken on her own colleagues.

Dr. Melissa Miller

Not only did they play a leading national role in developing accurate COVID-19 testing, they have conducted more than 250,000 tests.

“For the first time people are really seeing what the lab does, and how important to patient care laboratory tests are,” Miller shared.

“It’s with great sadnesss and pain that I look back at what we’ve been through in the last year, but also with hope that we have in front of us going forward.”

Dr. David Weber, UNC’s Medical Director of Infection Prevention, reflected on how little we really knew about the virus last March, and how scientists like Dr. Ralph Baric have helped pave a way out of this pandemic.

Weber believes that leading research will help North Carolina and the nation return to some sense of normalcy later this year.

Dr. David Weber

“With the current ability to give everyone the vaccine by May and the given current number of people who have already been infected, it’s likely we’ll begin to reach community protection levels by the end of May or June,” Weber offered.

But this is not a get out of jail free card.

Health professionals still worry about the variants that may escape the protection of the vaccines.

“But both the drug companies working on new therapies and the vaccine companies working on booster doses that cover these variants, give us hope that by the end of the year, life will return mostly to normal.”

Dr. David Wohl, a professor of infectious disease, says pathogens often find a way to take advantage of those who are marginalized, ignored or maligned in a community.

Dr. David Wohl

But he was struck by leaders on all levels to change the direction of ‘a horrible year.’

“Being the first to go in, the first to use PPE and show everyone else how to do it…and almost never saying ‘no,'” said Wohl in praising the tireless efforts of essential health workers.

Moving forward, Dr. Wohl says they will be focused on reaching into the community to accelerate vaccination rates among those who do not have access to high-speed internet or transportation and are challenged to make an appointment.

Over the past year, UNC Health has treated more than 1,700 COVID patients and administered 200,000 doses of vaccine across the state.

To learn more about getting vaccinated against the COVID virus, visit yourshot.org.

 

Fall test scores show learning remotely was a struggle for North Carolina’s school children

Scores on state tests taken in the fall show that students across North Carolina have not fared well academically during a year when many of them learned remotely.

On the beginning-of-grade third grade reading test, 58.2% of students across the state scored Level 1, which is the lowest level. Three quarters of third graders aren’t proficient.

High schools returned to school buildings in December and January to take end-of-course tests in Math 1 and Math 1, biology and English II. More than half of test takers were not proficient on Math 1, Math 3 or biology exams. Only 41.4 percent were proficient on the English II exam.

The test results are the first statewide look at how students are performing academically amid the COVID-19 pandemic, forced schools to close for in-person instruction. Many of the state’s 1.5 million students have received remote instruction this year.

NC Department of Public Instruction officials shared the scores with the State Board of Education (SBE) on Wednesday.

Tammy Howard, director of accountability services at DPI, cautioned the board to not read too much into the scores, particularly reading scores for third graders.

“We would not expect students to do well on that beginning-of-grade reading assessment,” Howard said. “We expect them to grow and to do better when they go through grade 3, then take the end-of-grade, and then we would expect their performance to improve.”

Howard explained that the state does not usually publish fall testing data. That changed this year, she said, to give district leaders information to compare and to help guide school leaders in their decision-making.

“The point of this data is to provide support and to target resources,” Howard said.

She said test scores for the current school year can never be used to compare scores from previous or future years.

“This year is just so very, very different,” Howard said.

Declining test scores usually means a district has not done everything possible to improve academic outcomes, Howard said.

“But in the context of this year, I think everything is being done and this information kind of grounds us to where we are, to have conversations about where we need to go in providing support and services,” Howard said.

High school teachers and students often say that math is one of the toughest subjects to teach and to learn in a remote setting.

The test scores for Math 1 show that to be true. Sixty-four percent of students were not proficient on the exam this school year, The report shows 48.2% were not proficient the previous school year. There was a sizeable dip in Math 3 scores as well. Fifty-four percent of students were not proficient versus 44.5% the previous school year.

Across exams, Black and Hispanic students already struggling to close an intractable achievement gap, fell even further behind.

For example, 82.7 percent of Black students were not proficient on the Math 1 exam. Last year, 66.9 % were not proficient. For, Hispanics, 74.6% were not proficient this compared to 55% a year ago.

White students performed better than their Black and Hispanic peers but their scores on the exam fell off precipitously. The report shows 54.9% of white students not proficient on Math 1 exams. The previous school year, 36.4% were not proficient.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that 83.6% of the 175,559 high school students — 151,542 students — took end-of-course exams.

“I’m not sure what you expected, but it was much higher than we expected,” Howard told the board.

Participation on the third-grade reading exam was not robust at 67.7%, but still respectable, Howard said.

State board member James Ford asked what parents should take from DPI’s report.

Howard said the exams remain a valid instrument to measure academic progress.

“What has shifted, is the opportunity to learn,” Howard said. “Everyone is doing an exceptional job of making that possible as much as they can with remote instruction and face-to-face instruction. We all know the context of this school year.”

State lawmakers and school leaders agree that many of the state’s K-12 students must spend the summer addressing learning loss caused by a year of remote learning.

The House has approved House Bill 82 requiring school districts to offer a summer learning and enrichment program to help students who have struggled academically during the pandemic.

If HB 82 becomes law, students in grades K-12 would receive “in-person instruction” on specific subjects and “enrichment activities” to offset learning loss and other negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts would prioritize at-risk students.

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