Education

State Board of Education vote down 4-month Istation extension

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Despite a plea from State Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education (SBE) on Friday rejected a $1.2 million contract extension with Istation, the firm that provides the state’s K-3 reading diagnostic tool.

The SBE voted 8-2 during a remote conference call to table the contract until the General Assembly considers a request to waive the reading diagnostic requirement in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

The crisis forced North Carolina’s schools to close until May 15 or longer.

A K-3 reading diagnostic tool is required under the state’s Read to Achieve law enacted to ensure students are reading on grade level by end of third grade. Without the Istation extension, the state will be without a diagnostic tool starting March 31.

Johnson said Istation has agreed to sweeten the deal by giving students and teachers its remote learning curriculum for free during school closure.

“So that means, with what we already have in place, at no additional cost, all of the reading, math and Spanish lessons and curriculum for teachers to assign to students and to personalize their learning will be made available,” Johnson said.

Johnson won over SBE members Amy White and Olivia Oxendine, both of whom voted in favor of extending the contract.

Oxendine said teachers understand Istation.

“They may not be thoroughly pleased but they were not thoroughly pleased with mClass [a competing diagnostic tool the state used before Istation],” Oxendine said. “Going back to my early days on the State Board I recall numerous debates about mClass and most of them were negative, not always positive.”

She said allowing the contract to expire leave teachers in the “lurch” and “twiddling their fingers, pulling out their hair” trying to figure out how to provide reliable and consistent standards-based instruction in K-3 reading.

“K-3 reading, as each board member knows, we have talked about it endlessly, is the foundation of literacy in the education of our kids,” Oxendine said. “

SBE member J.B. Buxton argued against the extension.

“Do we want to spend $1.2 million in the next four months … or even a $200,000 a month to provide a tool we may not be able to administer,” Buxton said. “We are asking to be waived and we don’t know that in the near-term students can even get access to [Istation] whether it’s on smartphone or [due to] connectivity issues or potentially by print.”

Johnson said he is confident the General Assembly will waive end of the year tests required by the state.

“But we have no indication from the General Assembly that they want us to violate the legislation [Read to Achieve law] that requires the formative progress monitoring,” Johnson said.

Buxton questioned the reliability of data collected from students working on Istation from home.

“I don’t know that we could call what progress monitoring would capture valid and reliable because we have no way of understanding how it’s being used at home,” Buxton said.

Several board members and Johnson alluded to the rocky history Istation has had in North Carolina.

The diagnostic tool has been a big point of contention between the SBE and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Johnson selected Istation to provide the assessment tool in August. That triggered a protest from Amplify, a competitor whose mClass diagnostic tool had been used in North Carolina schools.

The matter is still being litigated.

COVID-19, Governor Roy Cooper, News

NC Governor signs executive ‘stay at home’ order that starts at 5 p.m. Monday

Gov. Roy Cooper

Starting at 5 p.m. Monday, North Carolinians will be forced to stay in their homes for a month in an effort to slow the community spread of COVID-19, which is a pandemic.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced today that he signed an executive “stay at home” order. There are exceptions to the order, including for health and safety care and engagement, outdoor activities (with proper social distancing) and employees who need to go to a job that is considered essential by the state. Residents can also obtain necessary supplies and services from grocery stores or restaurants (take-out and delivery only).

The state has confirmed 763 positive cases of COVID-19 in 60 counties. There have been three deaths and 77 people hospitalized. Cooper said during a Friday afternoon press conference that there is widespread community transmission of the virus, which is why he signed the order.

“These are tough directives, but I need you to take them seriously,” Cooper said. “Although we are physically apart, we must take this step together in spirit. Even if you don’t think you have to worry about yourself, consider our nurses, doctors, custodial staff and other hospital workers who will be stretched beyond their capacity if we are unable to slow the spread of this disease.”

The executive order will be in effect for 30 days. If there are counties that already have stay at home orders, whichever one is more strict is the one residents have to comply with. All orders are enforceable by law, and Cooper said at the press conference that not complying with the statewide order is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said of detaining individuals who don’t follow the order. “But we want people to know that this is a serious order.”

Read the full text of the order below.



EO121 Stay at Home Order 3 (Text)

COVID-19, News

Washington update: Behemoth $2T COVID-19 response bill clears U.S. House, heads to Trump

WASHINGTON — A $2 trillion bill to aid workers, health care providers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic is poised to become law following its passage in the U.S. House on Friday.

Many House members reconvened in Washington to approve the 880-page measure, which stands to be the largest economic aid package in U.S. history. The chamber passed the measure using a “voice vote” typically used for uncontroversial measures, despite the objection of one House Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who attempted to force a recorded vote.

The massive bill — which would expand unemployment insurance, send direct checks to many Americans and offer financial aid to industries — cleared the U.S. Senate earlier this week. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he would “sign it immediately.”

No one loves the final package, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle insisted as they spoke on the House floor ahead of Friday’s vote. Still, most of them were willing to stomach provisions they disliked, arguing that acting swiftly to combat the public health and economic crisis was their top priority.

Among the bill’s key provisions:

  • A dramatic increase in unemployment insurance benefits. That would include about $600 per person per week in federal money, which would be in addition to what people get from states.
  • Direct checks of $1,200 per person for many adults and $500 for dependent children. The Washington Post created a stimulus payment calculator.
  • Forgivable loans for small businesses to cover payroll and other business costs.
  • A $500 billion loan program that would aid airlines and other large industries impacted by the crisis.
  • $150 billion in aid for states and local governments.
  • $100 billion for emergency funding for hospitals.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have stressed that additional response legislation will be necessary, but that they sought to quickly infuse cash into the health care system and the economy.

“We do know that we must do more … this cannot be our final bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday ahead of the bill’s passage. She said that state and local governments, as well as health care systems, will require more financial support.

Among the North Carolina House members to weight in were Republicans Richard Hudson and Dan Bishop.

Said Hudson: “These are challenging times for our country, yet throughout our history, America has risen to every challenge, and today is no different. I don’t like everything in this bill. While we kept out dangerous provisions like union bailouts, the Green New Deal and election schemes, it still has items I don’t agree with and I worry about the price tag. However, families, hospitals and small businesses need immediate relief.”

Bishop put it this way: “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ enthusiastically. This is a big bill, but the American people are bigger. They will respond to the present threat as Americans have always faced grave challenges: as free men and women with deep reservoirs of strength, capability and when summoned, duty and confidence.”

COVID-19, Environment

Polluters get a pass from EPA during pandemic

Andrew Wheeler, EPA photo by Eric Vance

Under pressure from industry, the EPA announced yesterday that it will not fine polluters who violate the law by failing to monitor their emissions and discharges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy suspending civil penalties is temporary, said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. It is retroactive to March 13.

The range of industries eligible for this temporary pass is vast, including many that operate in North Carolina, such as electric utilities, plastics and textile manufacturers, asphalt plants, and waste incinerators.

The EPA’s order states that “in general the agency does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the E.P.A. agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the E.P.A. upon request.”

According to the EPA’s press release, the agency expects regulated facilities to comply with the law, “where reasonably practicable, “and to return to compliance “as quickly as possible.”

Neither of those terms is defined in the policy announcement.

To skirt the penalties, facilities must “document decisions made to prevent or mitigate noncompliance and demonstrate how the noncompliance was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” Wheeler wrote. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The agency said public water systems should continue to operate normally, including routine sampling, “to continue to ensure the safety of our drinking water supplies.” Public water suppliers are required to regularly monitor for some contaminants, such as lead, copper and disinfection byproducts, that latter of which have been linked to cancer. These utilities must report results to both federal and state authorities.

The policy does not provide exempt polluters that intentionally violate the law, Wheeler wrote. Nor does the policy apply to pesticide imports, enforcement of Superfund sites or the disposal of regulated hazardous waste.

In its response to the pandemic, the EPA has been inconsistent in its leniency, particularly for public comment. Chris Frey is an NC State University environmental engineer professor who served on the agency’s Science Advisory Board from 2012 to 2018. He noted on Twitter that the EPA has refused to extend its 30-day public comment deadline on a controversial rule to limit the use of human health data in its environmental decisions.

Scientists and public health advocates have pleaded with the agency to extend the comment period, but the EPA has refused to do so.

Commentary, COVID-19

Duke law student with COVID-19 in open letter to the community: Take caution, hold onto hope

Dear Community,

On Monday, I became around the 41st Durhamite and 300th North Carolinian to officially test positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m young and healthy, have experienced only mild symptoms so far, and will probably be just fine riding out the next week or two in isolation. I write today to share two brief messages: one of caution, and one of hope.

First, let me join the growing chorus of voices telling all people, especially young people, to proceed with diligence and caution in these coming days and weeks. Just one seemingly small decision to Facetime with a friend instead of meeting up, to cook or order-in instead of making an extra trip to the store, or to video conference instead of going to the office can serve as the vital broken link that prevents entire swaths of our community from catching the virus, including people who might be at a greater risk of serious illness than you are.

It’s a rare moment when you can fulfill a noteworthy civic duty by sitting on your couch, eating frozen pizza, and catching up on that Netflix show your friends have been telling you about (or the 2017 UNC National Championship) – let’s take advantage of it. Believe me: It is easy to catch (and spread) the novel coronavirus even while being careful, so let’s be extra careful. You’ll never know exactly how many illnesses you prevented by staying socially distant, but don’t let that stop you from patting yourself on the back or stealing an extra Thin Mint from the freezer before bed.

Second, I write with hope. Read more