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. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

NC NAACP makes history, elects first woman president

Deborah Dicks Maxwell

Deborah Dicks Maxwell has been elected president of the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP.  Maxwell is the first woman elected to the position. Her tenure begins immediately.

The Wilmington resident is president of New Hanover County NAACP and district director of Walter B. White District 16. She has served as branch president and district director for the last 10 and eight years respectively.

“I didn’t run to be the first woman,” Maxwell told Policy Watch on Tuesday. “I ran on my capabilities to strengthen the North Carolina NAACP. There’s always room for improvement.”

Maxwell replaces Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, who was elected to lead the civil rights organization in 2017. She received 54% of the 186 votes cast by state delegates compared to 34% for Spearman. Gemale Black, president of the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP, received 11% of the votes.

Spearman replaced Rev. William Barber after Barber decided not to seek a seventh term as president to focus on his work with Repairers of the Breach, a social justice organization that works to highlight disparities in wages, housing, health care, education.

Maxwell said the state NAACP will focus on voter registration and voter turnout in upcoming elections. The NAACP is a non-partisan organization and does not endorse candidates for political office at any level.

Strengthening the state structure of the NAACP and increasing the number of branches on college and university campuses will also be focus areas under her leadership, Maxwell said.

Maxwell noted that there has been a call for more Student Resources Officers (SROs) due to recent school shootings in New Hanover and Forsyth counties.

“In New Hanover County, they are using the shooting to validate putting more SROs in schools, but we need more school social workers, psychologists and nurses in our schools, especially in these COVID times,” Maxwell said.

The NC NAACP will closely follow the Leandro case, the state landmark school funding case in the weeks ahead, Maxwell said.

“It’s sad that this has gone on for so long,” Maxwell said. “There’s a need to just go ahead [and adequately fund the state’s public schools]. The state has money.”

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Superior Court Judge David Lee, the judge overseeing the case, has given the plaintiffs in the case until Nov. 8 to come up with a strategy to move forward if the state doesn’t produce a plan to pay for the $5.2 billion Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The plan calls for $1.7 billion in new education spending over the next two years.

Maxwell served in the US Army and US Army Reserves, reaching the rank of Sergeant First Class. She participated in Operation Desert Storm.

The retired public health social worker is currently working on vaccine equity with Healthier Together: Health Equity Action Network, a public-private partnership between the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the NC Counts Coalition to increase the number of Black, Indigenous and People of Color receiving COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina.

In 2020 Maxwell was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

Along with Maxwell, two other women were elected to the three highest offices of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP.  Carolyn Q. Coleman, secretary to the NAACP National Board of Directors, from Greensboro, was re-elected as 1st Vice President; Carolyn P. McDougal, immediate past president, Harnett County NAACP was re-elected as 2nd vice president.

Other officers elected Saturday include Keith Rivers, president of the Pasquotank NAACP, who was re-elected 3rd vice president; Courtney Patterson, was re-elected 4th vice president; Sylvia Barnes, president of the Goldsboro-Wayne NAACP, was re-elected secretary; Gerald D. Givens, Jr., president of the Raleigh-Apex NAACP, was elected  treasurer and Robert Cunningham was re-elected assistant treasurer.

After one year, the HOPE Program has paid out $461 million to help keep families in homes

The NC Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program has paid out more than $461 million to landlords and utility companies on behalf of 135,213 families struggling to pay rent or keep the lights on during the pandemic, the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency reported Wednesday on the program’s first anniversary.

The HOPE Program is ranked second in the nation for number of households served, while North Carolina ranks sixth for spending of federal Emergency Rental Assistance money. The HOPE Program helps families avoid evictions and utility service disconnections.

In total, $520.2 million has been awarded to the families, with $461 million already paid to landlords.

“In its first year, the HOPE Program has helped more than 135,000 North Carolina families stay safe and warm in their homes during the pandemic,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a news release. “HOPE will continue to pay landlords and utility companies to keep low-income renters in their homes with the lights on as we recover in the months ahead.”

Last month, Policy Watch reported that North Carolina educators’ are  concerned about what they predict will be an explosion of students experiencing homelessness in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal moratorium on evictions.

North Carolina received $23.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act-Homeless Children and Youth relief funds to address the “urgent needs that have evolved from the pandemic.” Districts may use the money to address the social, emotional and mental health needs of students, trauma-informed care training for staff and to hire staff for local homeless education programs at the district and state level.

The HOPE Program has provided an economic boost to landlords who experienced financial setbacks due to COVID-19, program officials reported. During the second phase of HOPE that began May 17, the program has mailed checks to 30,727 landlords and more than 5,500 landlords have contacted HOPE to refer tenants, the news release said.

The program continues to accept landlord referrals of tenants struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic. Landlords may submit tenant names and contact information through the HOPE Program website or by contacting the HOPE Call Center at 888-9ASK-HOPE (888-927-5467).

HOPE also continues to accept applications for rent and utility bill assistance from low-income renters in 88 counties. Applicants can apply online at HOPE.NC.gov or call 888-9ASK-HOPE (888-927-5467) Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Both English- and Spanish-speaking representatives are available to assist callers.

Judge David Lee sets new deadline in state’s landmark school funding case

The showdown in the state’s landmark school funding case has been delayed until Nov. 8.

Superior Court Judge David Lee granted the reprieve to give plaintiffs in the Leandro case three weeks to craft an appropriate action to put into play if the state doesn’t produce a plan to pay for the $5.2 billion Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The plan calls for $1.7 billion in new education spending over the next two years.

“I think everyone knows that I’m ready to pull out of the station to see what’s around the next bend, but I’m certainly willing to take a reasonable amount of time to give you an opportunity to better inform the court as to specifically what we believe ought to be the case here and would certainly entertain any proposal that I might enter,” Lee said.

If no plan is in place by Nov. 8, Lee said he’s prepared to move forward.

“I’m not going to beat myself up further about our state adopting a budget somewhere around November and either addressing or not addressing Leandro,” Lee said. “I’ve dealt with that one as long as I reasonably can.”

Monday’s delay comes several weeks after Lee sternly warned state lawmakers that he’s willing to impose sanctions if legislators don’t live up to the constitutional mandate to provide the state’s children with sound basic education.

“That’s not to threaten anybody,” Lee said last month. “It’s to send a clear signal, clear as I know how; that come Oct. 18, if this hasn’t already been addressed as it should be addressed, as the court finds it needs to be addressed, [the court] will certainly be prepared to address it.”

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

The leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have pushed backed against Lee’s demands, contending that the judge has overstepped his authority.

“I don’t know how much clearer we can be. If Judge Lee wants to help decide how to spend state dollars — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislative branch since the state’s founding — then Judge Lee should run for a seat in the House or Senate,” Pat Ryan, an aide to Senate leader Phil Berger, told Raleigh’s News & Observer last month. “That’s where the constitution directs state budgeting decisions be made, not some county trial judge.”

Lee argued Monday that the state Constitution gives the court “sufficient authority” to rule in the case. In such cases, he added, the state is represented by the governor and the General Assembly.

“I think the legislature is a party to this matter and I know some have raised an issue about that,” Lee said.

Melanie Dubis, an attorney for the plaintiffs, agreed that the Constitution gives the court the right to weigh in on matters where “right” and “justice” are at issue.

Dubis said there is no separation of powers issue in the case.

“This court was instructed to and gave deference to its co-equal branch of the government for over 17 years,” she said. “The right that is at issue here — the right to a sound basic education — it is an affirmative constitutional right.”

She said the court must protect that right for the children of the state.

“The court unquestionably has authority and a duty to do that,” Dubis said. “And if not, then anyone who argues, I would submit, that the court does not have the authority, is arguing that our state Constitution is not worth the paper that it’s written on.”

There are multiple examples in other states in which courts have forced reluctant legislatures to adequately fund K-12 education.

In 2015, for example, the Washington State Supreme Court held the state in contempt and fined it $100,000 per day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education as required by a 2012 court order in the case of McCleary v. Washington.

The fine came after threats of sanctions if lawmakers did not live up to what that state’s constitution called a “paramount” duty to amply fund schools in that state.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also mentioned a 2004 ruling in Kansas in which a judge ordered schools closed if lawmakers didn’t fully fund an education spending plan.

Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, noted in a press release that a mention of closing schools piqued Lee’s interest. He called Lee “reckless” for contemplating such a move.

“This is yet another example of why the founders were right to divide power among the branches of government, giving power to create law and spend money with the legislature, not an unaccountable and unelected trial judge,” Berger said. “Judge Lee makes a mockery of our constitutional order with every additional hearing.”

Berger said the state Constitution is also clear that the legislature gets to make spending decisions.

He said the state Supreme Court reaffirmed this fact as recently as 2020: “In light of this constitutional provision, ‘[t]he power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,’ with the origin of the appropriations clause dating back to the time that the original state constitution was ratified in 1776.”

New study of North Carolina schools show wearing masks slows spread of COVID-19

Masking mandates in 20 North Carolina school districts resulted in lower COVID-19 infection rates among students and staff than reported rates of infection in the larger community, according to an ABC Science Collaboratives study published this week in The Journal of Pediatrics.  

The study included 783 K-12 schools representing 59,561 students and 11,854 staff members in 20 districts that held summer school or year-round school between June 14 and Aug. 13, a period when the Delta variant was fast becoming the dominant strain of the coronavirus.

Kanecia Zimmerman

“The findings of this study are extremely encouraging for the health and safety of students and staff attending schools where universal masking is in place,” said Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, a Collaborative co-chair. “The Delta variant is more transmissible than previous ancestral variants, but transmission in schools can continue to be low with vaccination among those who are eligible, strict adherence to masking, and avoidance of pandemic fatigue.”

The Collaborative is coordinated by the Duke Clinical Research Institute at the Duke University School of Medicine. The initiative extends across 18 states. It connects scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19.

School districts in the Collaborative’s analysis followed the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit, which recommended, but did not require, at least three feet of physical distancing between people. The state mask mandate for K-12 settings was in effect during the study period.

Here’s what researchers had to say about the analysis:

During the study, there were 808 community-acquired cases reported vs. 64 school-acquired cases. The Delta variant has a reproductive number of about 7, meaning that, on average, in the community, one person infected with the Delta variant infects 7 others. However, in schools that implemented universal masking, for every 13 people who acquired COVID-19 outside of school, one person acquired COVID-19 within schools. As a result of COVID-19 exposure at school, 2,431 close contacts were quarantined, and 64 people acquired infections in schools, resulting in a secondary attack rate of 2.6%. This secondary attack rate is slightly higher than the secondary attack rate of approximately 1% that the ABC Science Collaborative found before the emergence of the Delta variant. This is likely due to the more infectious nature of the Delta variant.

The researchers said the study did not allow for a comparison to an unmasked setting because a statewide mask mandate was in place, but data from other schools without a mask mandate during July-August 2021 showed these schools were 3.5 times more likely to have school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks than the schools in this study that required masking.

The data from this study also highlight the importance of remaining vigilant during times throughout the school day when strict mask adherence may not be possible, the researchers said.

Daniel Benjamin

“Looking forward to the fall and winter, lunch and extracurricular activities will be areas that require additional attention to limit the transmission of COVID-19 within schools,” Dr.  Danny Benjamin, who also co-chairs the Collaborative. “As pediatricians and public health experts, we encourage schools to put mitigation strategies in place, such as vaccination, masking, and eating outside, to protect students and staff.”

The Collaborative is funded through grants from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration.

On Thursday, state health officials reported that there have been significantly fewer COVID-19 clusters in North Carolina school districts requiring masks compared to those that do not.

State Health Director Betsey Tilson told the State Board of Education that in three counties without a school mask mandate between Aug. 26 and Sept. 26, there were 17.2 clusters per 100 schools. In the 89 counties with “consistent” mask mandates, there was an average of 6.9 clusters per 100 schools, Tilson said. Thirty-five of the counties did not report a cluster.

State health official: There are fewer COVID-19 clusters in school districts that require masks

There have been significantly fewer COVID-19 clusters in North Carolina school districts requiring masks compared to those that do not, State Health Director Betsey Tilson reported Thursday.

Dr. Tilson (pictured at left speaking at a 2020 briefing) told the State Board of Education (SBE) that in three counties without a school mask mandate between Aug. 26 and Sept. 26, there were 17.2 clusters per 100 schools. In the 89 counties with “consistent” mask mandates, there was an average of 6.9 clusters per 100 schools, Tilson said. Thirty-five of the counties did not report a cluster.

“There were about half as many clusters per 100 schools in those counties with a consistent mask mandate as opposed to those counties without,” she said.

Eight counties that reported clusters and changed mask mandates during the period studied were excluded from the report.

A COVID-19 cluster in childcare or school settings is defined by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) as a “minimum of five confirmed diagnostic cases with illness onset or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.”

Of the state’s 115 school districts, 106 of them now require masks.  Slightly more than 93% of the states 1.5 million K-12 students — 1.25 million — attend schools in districts with mask mandates.

Five school districts have made masks optional, including Harnett County Schools, which voted Monday to make masks optional over the objections of county health officials. The other four districts are in Union, Yancey, Lincoln and Pender counties, according to a map shared by Tilson.

The number of clusters in K-12 schools is as high as they have been since the pandemic began, Tilson said. There are currently 258 active clusters in public schools and 12 in private schools, she reported.

School mask mandates have become a political football in North Carolina and across the country. Parents have crowded into school board meetings to complain that masks interfere with the educational process, cause respiratory illnesses and deny families the right to decide what’s best for their children.

Board meetings have become such volatile events that the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden to help protect board members from angry parents who threaten school boards.

The Justice Department and the FBI were ordered this week to help protect school employees across the country against violence and threats over mask mandates and Critical Race Theory (CRT), an obscure academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. Most educators say CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.

In Greensboro this summer, the Guilford County Board of Education took threats against Superintendent Sharon Contreas and the board seriously. Security was increased to protect the superintendent and the board.

Gov. Roy Cooper has allowed school districts to decide whether to require masks. Several districts initially made masking optional but changed course after the virus’ more transmissible Delta variant took hold in the state.

What school boards must do

State health officials and the SBE sought to clear up confusion Thursday about school districts’ obligation to cooperate with local health officials when there is a COVID-19 outbreak.

SBE attorney Alison Schafer shared new NCDHHS guidance that spell out what school boards must do to comply with state law in their dealings with local health departments.

“There’s been a lot of confusion in the schools about what the legal requirements are,” said SBE attorney Allison Schafer. “First of all, under the law, schools are required to work with local health departments to identify, contract trace and exclude children who may have contracted the disease or are suspected of contracting the disease and to also identify those who have been exposed.”

Here’s a condensed version of the new NCDHHS guidance Schafer shared:

  • The law requires that school principals report to the local health department anyone within in a school who they have reason to suspect has a reportable communicable disease.
  •  Schools must promptly provide to the designated State and local public health authorities any and all records or information requested. This information can include, but is not limited to, people who were within 6 feet of the case for 15 minutes or more cumulatively in a 24-hour period, class rosters, contact information for staff, students, and parents, spatially accurate seating charts, attendance records, sports teams and extracurricular activity rosters and locker assignments.
  • When someone in the school is diagnosed with COVID-19, schools must promptly work with local public health officials so that local health officials can quickly identify individuals exposed to COVID-19 in accordance with CDC Guidance. In addition to providing required records, as described above, contact tracing also requires schools to participate in interviews and other information exchange with local public health officials as part of the case investigation to track exposures and identify close contacts.
  • Pursuant to CDC Guidance and as part of the written and required control measures in North Carolina, persons exposed to COVID-19 are directed to self-quarantine. If an individual fails to adhere to this requirement, then a local health director or designee may issue a formal quarantine order pursuant to NCGS § 130A-145. Formal quarantine orders are not necessary to create a legal requirement to comply with control measures. Schools are required to exclude students, teachers, and staff who meet the criteria to quarantine regardless of whether an order has been issued.