CDC: You can ditch the mask in most places, indoors and out, if fully vaccinated

National and state unemployment insurance data show initial claims return to pre-COVID-19 levels

The release of national weekly unemployment insurance claims data shows that initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) are 92 percent lower than this time last year in North Carolina.

The continued decline week-over-week similarly points to the continued improvements in the labor market and the important role UI plays in ensuring jobless workers stay engaged in the labor market and looking for work.

“North Carolina’s unemployment system is the first line of defense against people leaving the labor force out of frustration that too few jobs are available,” said Alexandra Sirota, Director of the Budget& Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. “For more than 467,000 North Carolinians our state system fell short, failing to sustain them until their job searches resulted in employment.”

New research from the Economic Policy Institute points to the critical role that federal extensions of UI eligibility and the number of weeks have had in North Carolina, as well as the heavy reliance in our state on those programs to stabilize the economy. Federal UI provided more than 80 percent of the unemployment benefits in North Carolina, which went a long way to stabilizing household budgets, local commerce, and state revenue.

In North Carolina, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which reaches those who would otherwise not be eligible for state UI, such as the self-employed or those on contracts, provided wage replacement during the week ending April 24th to more than 83,000 North Carolinians.

UI must be the foundation of the state’s work to ensure people get back to good, family-sustaining jobs. Right now, national data show that despite improvements in the number of job openings economy-wide there are still 12 workers officially counted as unemployed for just 10 job openings. Moreover, well-documented barriers—including here in North Carolina—point to the real barrier of childcare faced by a significant share of the labor force, which makes it difficult for every worker to return to their jobs.

“Unemployment Insurance is one of the most effective tools we have to support the economy to recovery,” said Bill Rowe, Deputy Director of Advocacy at the NC Justice Center. “The key is to provide adequate wage replacement for those who have lost employment until the labor market has the quantity and quality of jobs that ensure workers can go back to work.”

Julia Hawes is the Director of Communications for the N.C. Justice Center.

State audit faults oversight of $3.1 billion in coronavirus relief

State Auditor Beth Wood

The state Pandemic Recovery Office did not monitor spending of $3.1 billion in federal pandemic funds in a way that would catch misuse in a timely way, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The recovery office required recipients provide receipts and monthly spending reports with supporting documentation, the audit said. But the office did not independently verify the spending by comparing the reports to the supporting documents until November 2020, after most of the money had been spent.

Additionally, the recovery office sent out money without making sure all recipients had goals for accomplishing their objectives or ways to measure results.

In response, state budget director Charles Perusse and recovery office executive director Stephanie McGarrah said the state legislature funded the office at half the requested amount, which resulted in understaffing and a delay in full verification of recipient spending. The office established a nine-step process that balanced release of money to recipients with monitoring expenditures, they wrote. The office is adding staff in response to the audit findings.

In December, the Auditor’s Office released a report  critical of the state Department of Public Instruction’s monitoring of coronavirus relief fund spending. The audit faulted DPI oversight of the summer learning program and the school nutrition program.

The state legislature started the distributing the federal money in May 2020. Initially, federal law required it be spent by December 2020.

Thursday’s audit looked all 490 recipients of Coronavirus Relief Act money. Forty-three recipients did not report objectives, 302 of 447 reported objectives but no goals, and 57 of 145 reported objectives and goals, but had no way to measure progress, the audit said.

In their response, Perusse and McGarrah wrote that lack of staffing and funding, and the temporary nature of the recovery office contributed to the finding that performance measures “were not as robust as they could have been.”

The recovery office is set to dissolve in December.

First-of-its-kind bill would incentivize integration of North Carolina schools

Rep. Cecil Brockman

This week, Rep. Cecil Brockman introduced a first-of-its-kind bill to add measures of school segregation to North Carolina’s School Report Cards. If passed, H948 would provide policymakers, families, and students with new data to identify racially segregated schools and those in which opportunities and resources are being denied to certain student groups.

The bill is based on the maxim that “what gets measured, gets done.” By measuring and publicizing the extent to which our schools are segregated and the extent to which certain student groups are denied equal access to resources, leaders at all levels of government can then take steps to address these problems. Publishing the data on the School Report Card page would make this data transparent and widely available to students, parents, and other advocates invested in school integration.

First, the bill would assign each school a “proportionality score.” The proportionality score measures the extent to which the demographics of an individual school differ from the county in which the school is located. The bill would assign each school in the state – including charter schools – a designation of “highly proportional,” “proportional,” “somewhat disproportional,” or “highly disproportional” to identify which schools are the most racially segregated.

Additionally, the bill would gather information on the extent to which resources are disproportionately provided within a school. That is, H948 would require reporting on the equality of access to gifted programs, advanced courses, and experienced and credentialed teachers.

Finally, the bill would examine the equitable distribution of opportunities and resources across schools and student subgroups within a district. It would measure equality of access to instruction in arts and music, as well as access to support personnel such as psychologists, counselors, and nurses.

The bill stems from the work of the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education New Jersey, which developed the proportionality score metric to identify racially segregated schools, and the National Coalition on School Diversity, which created model legislation off which H948 is based (full disclosure, this author contributed to the NCSD report). H948 represents the first state effort to incorporate measures of school segregation into a state’s accountability system.

In addition to being innovative, the bill is timely and important. School segregation in North Carolina continues to harm students from all backgrounds. North Carolina has experienced a stark increase in the number of racially- and economically-isolated schools in the past decade. Legislative leaders continue to push ideas that exacerbate segregation such as unfettered charter school growth, municipal charter schools, and the potential break-up of large, county school districts.

Research continues to show that school integration benefits all students. Integrated schools tend to have higher test scores and narrower opportunity gaps. They positively impact educational attainment, lifetime earnings, incarceration rates, and health outcomes of Black students. Finally, integrated schools increase cross-racial trust and friendships and enhance students’ capacity for working with others.

Of course, there are many additional steps that policymakers could take to actively integrate our schools. Federal and state leaders should be providing our schools with adequate funding, offering financial and technical assistance to districts implementing school integration plans, addressing exclusionary school district boundaries, and by better regulating charter schools. Local leaders can modify attendance zone policies, create magnet schools, replace school resource officers with counselors and social workers, and implement culturally-responsive practices that uplift and affirm all students’ humanity. Still, Brockman’s bill offers an important first step in measuring and publicizing the ways in which school segregation continues to harm all of North Carolina’s students.

Wake County sought the death penalty for a man with severe mental illness; only a pandemic stopped it

A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week to prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

Wake County prosecutors knew that Kendrick Gregory had severe mental illness when they decided to try him capitally. In the eight months before the crime, he’d been hospitalized at least 20 times for mental illness. He checked himself into emergency rooms over and over, reporting symptoms of psychosis. On some occasions, he said he heard voices telling him to hurt himself.

In the five years that they sought to try him for the death penalty, his mental illness became only more apparent. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and twice found incompetent to stand trial. He was often unkempt and was unable to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

Instead of accepting that Mr. Gregory was simply too mentally ill to be tried capitally, Wake County prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate him — an attempt to “restore” him to competency so they could ask a jury to kill him.

This kind of case is exactly the reason that Ohio recently made history by becoming the first state to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, a law that will protect vulnerable people and save millions a year on costly capital trials. The Constitution says the death penalty is to be reserved for the most culpable defendants and the most calculated murders, but too often it’s used instead against vulnerable and marginalized people like Mr. Gregory, who are poor, Black, and suffering from diminished mental capacity.

It is both immoral and unconstitutional to execute people who cannot understand or regulate their actions. For exactly those reasons, federal and state laws bar the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and children. There is no rational reason for executing people who committed crimes while in the grips of psychosis or whose mental illness prevents them from understanding the consequences of their actions.

Yet, in North Carolina, this remains an accepted practice. Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, was allowed to represent himself at his murder trial while so delusional that he believed he was God and that Oprah and other celebrities were sending him messages through the television. His illness was on full display as he told the jury “you will worship me and proclaim me lord and master.” They promptly sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row today.

If not for a global pandemic, Mr. Gregory might have joined Mr. LeGrande on death row. Read more