Poor People’s Campaign rallies outside federal building, presses NC Senators to protect democracy, raise wages

Rev. Nelson Johnson addresses demonstrators outside the Raleigh office of Senator Thom Tillis. (Photo: screen grab from live stream)

Dozens of demonstrators from North Carolina’s faith community and the Poor People’s Campaign gathered outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ Raleigh office Monday to release an open letter to members of the U.S. Senate.

The group is demanding Congress end the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“You can’t survive on $7.25 (an hour). You can hardly survive on $15.25,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson. “We need to keep raising that standard of living.”

Johnson told the crowd Congress must also fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“What kind of democracy can you have when you make laws that suppress people’s right to vote?” Johnson asked rhetorically.

Activist Karen Ziegler of the group Tuesdays with Tillis called for an end to the filibuster.

“Because some senators – including Senators Tillis and Burr – are intent on making it easier for a few millionaires to buy our elections, and more difficult for regular people to vote,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said the group is also urging Congress to expand Medicaid in states that have yet to take that action on their own.

“80 percent of North Carolinians want to expand it. And not expanding it kills people,” she said.

Similar events were held by the Poor People’s Campaign in 40 other states on Monday.

Demonstrators plan a Moral Monday action in the nation’s capital on August 2nd to call more attention to the needs of low-wage workers.

Karen Ziegler of the group Tuesdays with Tillis

As COVID cases rise, NC adjusts mask guidance for schools

Governor Roy Cooper

It feels like déjà vu all over again when it comes to the coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19 are ticking upward with 1,434 new infections reported on Wednesday.

Governor Roy Cooper is again appealing to all North Carolinians to protect themselves and get vaccinated.

The problem is that most people who were anxious to get the vaccine have already done so.

As of Wednesday, 60% of North Carolina’s eligible adults had received one-dose of the COVID vaccine.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all of our children back in the classroom safely for in-person learning,” Gov. Cooper said. “We want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after the year of disruption they just had.”

Because children under 12 are not eligible yet to be vaccinated, North Carolinians must come together to keep students safe from the virus, said the governor.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The toolkit emphasizes schools with students in 9th through 12th grades ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, also wear a mask indoors.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of the virus among those who are unvaccinated. That has not changed,” Cooper said.

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen said the best COVID protective measure remains the vaccines.

HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

“With only 24% of North Carolinians ages 12-17 fully vaccinated, and because anyone under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, we still have a long way to go,” Cohen told reporters.

In addition to the guidance on mask-wearing the toolkit offers recommendations on physical distancing, PPE and contact tracing in the K-12 setting.

Sec. Cohen said this layered prevention strategy outlined in the toolkit is intended to make the return to school as safe as possible.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt called the new guidance ‘critically important’ while praising local-level decision making.

“As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students,” said Truitt in a released statement.

Dr. Cohen said 94% of  North Carolina’s new positive COVID cases are in people who are unvaccinated. About six percent are breakthrough cases with individuals who have been vaccinated.

“We have seen counties with lower vaccination rates have higher outbreaks, especially with this Delta variant,” said Cooper. “We’re in a race really against COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”

The challenge for health officials is that vaccine-acceptance varies widely across North Carolina.

Robeson County, where 26% of residents are fully vaccinated, has among the lowest rates in the state.

The Robeson County Health Department has hosted vaccination clinics at local libraries and schools to better distribute shots to rural areas. At some locations, people who get vaccinated and adults who drive them to clinics get $15 gift cards.

The Robeson County Church and Community Center is using a state Healthier Together grant to host two vaccination clinics. At the first, free food and school supplies will be available.

The center is also reaching out to churches, to get their leaders who are vaccinated and talk about it, executive director Brianna Goodwin said in a meeting Wednesday morning of NC Rural Coalition Fighting COVID-19.

Personal connections and word of mouth are what sway reluctant people toward getting vaccinated, she said.

If Jesus were on Earth today, he would take the vaccine, she said.

“It is to protect the people around us. Love God, love others. How can we love others if we expose them to something that can be so deadly?”

To date, North Carolina has administered more than 9.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Learn more about the state’s vaccine distribution at myspot.nc.gov. 

Reporter Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Equity & education: Two major stories to watch this Wednesday

The Senate Education Committee will take up House Bill 324 (Ensuring Dignity & Nondiscrimination/Schools) this afternoon at 2:00pm.

Many North Carolina educators worry the legislation will hamper the ability of teachers to openly discuss systemic inequities with their students.

Here’s how the Public School Forum described the legislation in May as it made its way through the state House:

…the most recent version of House Bill 324 incites a fear-based approach to limit teachers’ ability to discuss the reality of racism in the United States and would limit students’ engagement with history, current events, and personal health, as well as their social and emotional learning.

The bill will also hinder efforts at the school district level to understand and tackle the root cause of inequities in our educational system and address the opportunity gap. While non-discrimination and unity are worthy ideals for which we should all strive every day, this bill would take us further from these goals. The only way to truly work towards unity and nondiscrimination is to bravely and honestly reckon with our country’s complicated past and present.

We have made progress in the movement toward a more just and equitable world, but we still have much more work to do. Engaging students in these critical conversations and complex issues is an ideal way to enable students to analyze, question, and generate solutions to challenging, real world problems. By denying our students these opportunities, we also deny them their constitutional right to a sound basic education, and we put them, and our nation at a future disadvantage. We must not deny students this right simply because these truths are challenging and uncomfortable.

Our students are ready to learn and reimagine a better future for us all. And, in order to do so, we must ensure that they are equipped with the facts and have the knowledge and skills to lead us there.

Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress will be monitoring today’s Senate committee meeting.

You can follow the debate over HB 324 this afternoon at 2:00pm with an audio stream available here.

Chancellor Guskiewicz

The second education story you’ll want to watch will be over in Chapel Hill as the UNC Faculty Council will hold an emergency meeting amid concerns that the school’s Board of Trustees and UNC System Board of Governors are considering replacing Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

Guskiewicz has come under fire recently for the handling of the tenure controversy of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

New members of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees are being sworn in this week and could press for his removal.

Mimi Chapman, chairwoman of UNC faculty, telling the Raleigh News & Observer the optics would be terrible:

…removing Guskiewicz as chancellor would be a “threat to the well-being of our campus,” particularly at a time when the university is also searching for a new provost.

Hannah-Jones, for who declined UNC for Howard University after a tumultuous tenure battle, responded to news this way:

Though much of today’s Faculty Council meeting will be in closed session, a livestream will be available at this link starting at 3:00pm.

Winston-Salem teacher first to win million dollar prize for getting COVID vaccine

Shelly Wyramon becomes North Carolina’s first million dollar winner in the vaccine lottery.

Shelly Wyramon decided to get the COVID vaccine to protect herself and her family and that decision paid off big time.

The Winston-Salem teacher and mother of three became the state’s first $1 million vaccine lottery winner on Monday.

Wyramon refused to believe that she had really won the life-changing prize until she got on a video phone with state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.

“My husband and I have aging parents that we weren’t getting to spend much time with, and I love to teach children and I wasn’t getting to do that in person,” said Wyramon at a Monday press conference. “I wanted to do my small part to stop the spread.”

Wyramon says the vaccine will also her to get back to spending precious time with those that she loves including her students.

Officials also announced 14-year-old Vania Martinez from Wilmington was the first winner of a $125,000 college scholarship prize for getting the vaccine.

Martinez said she was inspired to get vaccinated after seeing young people contract the virus, and after losing someone close to her.

“I did my research. It was safe for me. It was safe for my family.”

Martinez said the added benefit of the scholarship money will help her and her mother cover college expenses.

Governor Roy Cooper said he is hopeful stories life Shelly’s and Vania’s encourage others to get the COVID vaccine.

“Whatever brings people in to get their vaccinations is what we want to do,” Cooper said. “One of the things I know is we have to do is to do this one person, one household, one telephone call, one shot at a time.”

“We need to do better here in North Carolina” DHHS Sec. Cohen stressed. “Areas of our state with low vaccination rates are seeing increased COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”

Bladen County where just 33% of the population is vaccinated is experienced critically high viral spread right now.

Officials are stressing the need to get vaccinated this summer as a more contagious delta variant is emerging across the state.

“Being vaccinated protects you from becoming seriously ill. There are some break through cases, but almost all the time the illness is less serious and you have a low chance of passing it on to someone else,” Cooper said.

To date, 55% of North Carolinians 18-years-old and older have received the vaccine. Fifty-three percent (53%) of those 12+ have been vaccinated.

The next drawing will occur on July 7 with that winner will be announced the following week.

President Biden urges North Carolinians to get vaccinated against COVID: ‘Just do it’ (with video)

President Joe Biden highlighted the need for vaccine equity and the need to reach vulnerable populations during a brief trip to Raleigh on Thursday. Biden told those attending a mobile vaccination clinic at Green Road Community Center that it’s never been easier or more important to get the shot.

“The data couldn’t be clearer. If you are vaccinated, you’re safe,” Biden said. “You are still at risk of getting seriously ill or dying if you have not been vaccinated.”

North Carolina vaccination rate has held steady over the past week, with 55 percent of adults statewide having had at least one vaccine dose. Nationally, 66 percent of Americans have had one shot to protect them against the coronavirus.

Vaccination efforts are increasingly important this summer with the spread of the delta variant.

Watch President Biden’s remarks below: