Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. greg@ncpolicywatch..com Follow Greg @gchild6645
Education

Citing safety concerns, Durham Public Schools ends meals program after employee tests positive for COVID-19

Durham Public Schools staffers distribute meals and instructional materials last week.

The Durham Public Schools announced late Thursday that it will end its food assistance program for needy students after a cafeteria worker at Bethesda Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement on its website, DPS said the decision was made to “keep our staff safe and well” and noted the “expansion of other food assistance program serving North Carolina families” as options for families needing help with meals.

“I am grateful for all of our staff who have provided immediate food assistance to our children while in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “We now need to focus on the health and wellness of our employees.”

Today will be the last day students and families can pick up daily meals at more than 67 schools and community sites across Durham County. DPS, however, will distribute a week’s worth of meals at 13 schools Monday.

DPS announced Thursday that an employee distributing meals and instructional materials at Bethesda tested positive for COVID-19.  DPS said the employee did not come to work after taking a COVID-19 test.

A cafeteria worker with Lexington City Schools (LCS) also tested positive for the virus.

DPS’ confirmation of a positive COVID-19 test came a few hours after State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Eric Davis announced that several school districts had reported cases of employees testing positive for the virus.

Earlier this week, the N.C. Association of Educators asked the SBE and N.C. Department to clarify safety procedures for employees still working in schools.

“We ask the State Board of Education and the Department of Public instruction to further clarify their protocols for educational professionals around employee pay and worksite safety, and call on them to provide the appropriate precautions, protections, resources, and tools that educators need to do their jobs during these incredibly difficult times,” the NCAE said in a statement.

The decision to end the meals program in Durham will impact thousands of families.

Approximately 62% of DPS students are eligible to receive free-or reduced-priced lunches. And 13 of its 53 schools qualify for the federal community eligibility provision, meaning no applications are taken and 100% of their students receive free lunches.

The Bethesda site produced 400-500 meals for various feeding sites. Staff served about 100 meals daily at the school. The district has provided tens of thousands of meals since the food distribution program began in late March.

DPS noted that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has increased benefits to food stamp recipients through April.

Officials also pointed to three drive-thru or pick-up sites with meals provided by No Kid Hungry North Carolina. Parents can text FOODNC to 877-877 for meals.  The DPS Foundation is also working with local partners and restaurants to provide meals.

DPS will distribute instructional material to support learning at home at all 53 school sites on Tuesday, April 7, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m

Education

School employees in Durham, Lexington test positive for COVID-19

At least two employees of North Carolina school districts distributing food and instructional materials to students have tested positive for COVID-19.

Durham Public Schools announced Thursday that an employee distributing meals and instructional materials at Bethesda Elementary School has tested positive for COVID-19.

And a cafeteria worker for Lexington City Schools learned of  a positive test Wednesday after being tested for the virus over the weekend.

DPS’s confirmation came a few hours after State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis announced that several school districts had reported cases of employees testing positive for COVID-19.

Days earlier the N.C. Association of Educators asked the SBE and N.C. Department to clarify safety procedures for employees still working at schools.

“We ask the State Board of Education and the Department of Public instruction to further clarify their protocols for educational professionals around employee pay and worksite safety, and call on them to provide the appropriate precautions, protections, resources, and tools that educators need to do their jobs during these incredibly difficult times,” the NCAE said in a statement.

DPS officials said that out of an “abundance of caution” employees working at Bethesda were sent home and directed to contact the Durham County Health Department.

The employee and others working at school site regularly have their temperatures taken, DPS said. The temperature of the employee who tested positive was normal at the workplace, officials said.

DPS said the employee did not come to work after taking a COVID-19 test. DPS was notified late Wednesday of the positive test.

Since the district’s food distribution program began March 23, officials said protections for staff and families have steadily increased with the addition of more social distancing requirements, aggressive cleaning and the closing of most DPS worksites.

“Our highest priority is to keep our students, families, and staff safe during this COVID-19 response,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said. “We continue to be grateful to all of our staff who have been supporting our students by providing school meals and instructional materials, and we will continue to strengthen our programs to ensure that they operate safely for all.”

The Bethesda site produces 400-500 meals for various feeding sites. About 100 meals are served at the school.

DPS Operational Services is evaluating what adjustments to make to the feeding program as a result of the positive test, officials said.

LCS suspended its food distribution program Wednesday for one day after the local health department confirmed the cafeteria worker’s positive test for COVID-19.

A statement from LCS Superintendent Anitra Wells said the employee was tested Sunday after feeling ill. The employee did not return to work after being tested. The test results came back Tuesday.

Child nutrition workers, volunteers and drivers in contact with the staff member have self-quarantined, Wells said.

This is a developing story.

Education

UNC-TV provides educational programming to keep North Carolina children learning while schools are closed

North Carolina’s public school are closed due to the COVID-19 crisis but students can continue to learn by watching UNC-TV.

The state’s public television station has begun to air programming for students in grades 4-12  to complement remote learning opportunities provided by North Carolina schools.

The programs are designed for use by parents, caregivers and educators while schools are closed. The state’s public schools will remain closed until May 15, or longer.

Educational programming is available online, on air and through PBS LearningMedia for students in pre-kindergarten through high school .

N.C. Department of Public Instruction will link online and printable material and activity ideas that complement the UNC-TV lessons. Districts are encouraged to print the materials and the programming schedule to distribute at meal sites or mail to students.

“We’re excited about this additional learning resource for students and families during this challenging time across our state and nation,” said Angie Mullennix, director of innovation strategy and interim director of K-12 standards, curriculum and instruction for DPI. “We thank UNC-TV for working with us to help fill the gap left by the unfortunate, but necessary, school closures.”

UNC-TV’s educational programming block will be available over the air and streamed live at unctv.org/athomelearning. The programming is available Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., for grades 4-8 and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., for grades 9-12 (actual times may vary, please check the weekly schedule online at unctv.org/ahl).

Additional programming for children in grades pre-K through third grade is available on UNC-TV’s Rootle 24/7 PBS KIDS channel, as well as weekdays during a seven-hour block, from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on UNC-TV.

Education

Guilford County Schools to give cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers temporary pay increases

In response the COVID-19 crisis, Guilford County Schools will increase hourly pay for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers beginning Wednesday.

Although North Carolina’s public schools have been closed since March 13, cafeteria workers and bus drivers across the state have played critical roles in the delivery of meals to needy students and their families.

The pay increase — time and a half for hours worked — applies to hourly employees who have been deemed mandatory by supervisors and are required to report to work either to provide childcare for hospital workers or to prepare and deliver student meals.

“Without our dedicated school nutrition and transportation staff who are preparing and distributing meals, Guilford County would be facing the potential of massive child hunger,” GCS Superintendent Sharon Contreras said in a statement. “Additionally, without the commitment of our after-school staff, teacher assistants and custodial support, some hospital workers would not have childcare and would be unable to report for duty.”

The pay increase is valid April 1-30, but may be extended, depending on the pandemic’s impact in Guilford County. The state’s schools will not reopen before May 18.

For the 2019-2020 school year, more than 65% of GCS students qualified for free- or reduced-price meals.

Last Tuesday, GCS served slightly fewer than 1,000 meals. Eight days later, that number jumped to more than 29,000 emergency meals per day. The district has provided more than 157,000 meals to children since Gov. Roy Cooper announced schools were closing, effective March 16.

Contreras plans to ask the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper to increase the pay of public-school employees providing essential services during the coronavirus pandemic.

She and the GCS school board will meet virtually Tuesday with members of the local NCGA delegation to discuss the pay increase.

“We respectfully ask the General Assembly to act swiftly to increase the pay of these critical hourly employees,” Contreras said. “In the meantime, however, GCS will take action immediately to prevent child hunger and the lack of childcare for frontline healthcare workers from making the pandemic even worse.”

GCS officials also announced plans to reduce the number of non-mandatory personnel working on-site this week to help slow the spread of the virus.

The State Board of Education adopted new rules Friday to allow non-mandatory employees and those who report for reduced hours, who are unable to work from home, to take paid State Emergency Leave for the balance of the hours they were not assigned on-site or remote duties.

COVID-19, Education, News

State Board of Education makes changes to graduation requirements for class of 2020

Students prepare to receive diplomas at a recent Durham Public Schools’ graduation.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s doubtful high school seniors will don caps and gowns for graduation ceremonies this spring.

But the State Board of Education (SBE) has made earning a diploma easier by adopting policy  adjustments Friday relaxing graduation requirements.

Under the adjustments, districts and school systems can’t require seniors to earn more than 22 credits to graduate. Some districts require more than the state’s 22-credit minimum to earn a diploma.

“We are focusing on the minimum 22 State Board of Education requirements,” said Sneha Shah Coltrane, the state’s director of advanced learning and gifted education. “If there is availability and the school is able to do that [provide more than the minimum] and the senior is able to do other requirements, wonderful. However, for graduation purposes, we want to ensure that we are focused on the 22 [minimum requirement] to leap these students forward to their incredible futures.”

Seniors won’t have to fret over grades, either, particularly if they did well in the fall. Those grades will count toward GPAs.

Grades for spring courses will be pass or withdraw if students were failing a course on March 13, the last day students attended North Carolina schools before they were closed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Districts must provide remote learning opportunities to help students failing a course earn a “pass” designation.

In addition to remote learning, students may also meet graduation requirements through the N.C. Virtual Public School, a credit recovery program or by passing a locally developed assessment based on course material covered through March 13.

Evaluating students in grades K-11

The board also issued guidance for grading students engaged in remote learning.

Teachers may only evaluate students in grades K-5 or assign grades to students in grades 6-11 if there is equitable access to technology, consistent communication between teachers and students and evidence that students are learning.

SBE member Olivia Oxendine asked for clarity about when teachers can assign grades based on remote learning activities in grades K-5.

“If a classroom teacher determines that one or two students are having extraordinary challenges taking part in online instruction … would that constitute the teacher’s decision not to assign grades?” Oxendine asked.

Coltrane responded: “Yes, for a simple answer. The idea that there is no permanent comparison done among the students when equity is not there.”

School funding flexibility 

The SBE approved a formula to divvy up $50 million in funding flexibility approved by Gov. Roy Cooper this week.

Under the formula, $25 million will be distributed to districts or schools based on enrollment. The other $25 million will be based a district’s or school’s low-wealth status or number of poor students enrolled.

The funding is intended to help districts serve students during the COVID-19 crisis. Money may be spent on school nutrition, school-and community-based childcare, cleaning and sanitizing schools and buses, protective equipment and remote learning opportunities.

The $50 million is comprised of unused funds from the current and previous school year and the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund.

Emergency leave policy  

The SBE also adopted an emergency leave policy to allow districts to continue to pay and provide benefits to workers who cannot work remotely, who cannot work due to childcare or eldercare needs.

The policy provides up to 168 hours of paid leave between April 1 through April 30.