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. Follow Greg @gchild6645
COVID-19, News

A Raleigh postal worker tested positive for COVID-19; experts say risk posed by mail is very low

The U.S. Postal Service confirmed Tuesday that an employee at the Capital Station Post Office on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh recently tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Few details about the infection were provided by postal officials in an emailed response to Policy Watch questions, so it was unclear whether the infected employee had contact with postal service customers.

It was also unclear how long the employee worked at the Capital Station location before the positive test, or whether other employees there have been tested.

“At this time, we believe exposure risk for other employees at the Capital Station facility is low, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health department official,” Philip Bogenberger, the Charlotte-based spokesman for the Postal Service who confirmed the positive test.

Bogenberger noted that the CDC and the World Health Organization have indicated there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through mail. He said that position is supported by the U.S. Surgeon General and the Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

After the positive test, Bogenberger said Capital Station was disinfected using “current cleaning protocols.” Capital Station is closed on Sundays.

“The safety and well-being of our employees is one of our highest priorities,” Bogenberger said. “To ensure the health of our employees, we are continuing to follow recommended strategies from the CDC and local health departments. We also continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation on a nationwide basis.”

An area postal worker contacted Policy Watch this week to express concern that postal officials in some locations are not providing employees with gloves, masks or wipes to ensure they are safe at work.

“We were told that upper management was not going to provide us with those things,” the postal worker said.

Policy Watch agreed not to identify the worker who feared retaliation for speaking to the media.

Bogenberger responded “no” when asked if the claim about the postal service not providing gloves, masks and wipes is true.

The worker said she felt compelled to speak out because delivery workers are being overlooked.

“Nobody is speaking about the public service workers,” the worker said. ‘Postal, UPS, FedEx and all other delivery employees do not know if the person sending or receiving mail or packages has the virus or any other contagious disease.”

The same worker told Policy Watch about the infected postal worker at Capital Station.

A number of major news outlets, including the Washington Post and Raleigh’s News & Observer have reported in recent days that the risk of the virus being spread through mail is extremely low. The following is from a March 17 report in the N&O entitled “Can you get coronavirus from the mail? Here’s what health experts say about the risk”: Read more


Teachers plan to continue serving students amid school closures in North Carolina

NC Teacher of the Year Maria Morris

Mariah Morris, North Carolina’s reigning Teacher of the Year, has asked educators across the state to post instructional videos on YouTube for students stuck at home due to COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

Morris, an elementary school teacher at West Pine Elementary School in Pinehurst, joined regional 2019 and 2020 Teachers of the Year for Facebook live meeting Monday morning to discuss how teachers can continue to serve students through online learning.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Saturday that all public schools would close for at least two weeks.

“We are in uncharted times, and teachers want to help,” Morris told Policy Watch. “From the time school closures were announced, there has been a buzz among teachers to come together to act in the best interest of our students. This is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to come together across North Carolina and connect with our students daily.”

Morris asked teachers to focus on four “action steps” that include donating to local food pantries and the United Way; working with community leaders to make sure students are fed, safe and warm; and supporting students and teachers who are adapting to new modes of learning.

And beginning today, the Teachers of the Year will provide instructional videos on Morris’ s YouTube channel. Elementary lessons will be posted at 9 a.m., followed by middle school and high schools lessons at 9:30 a.m.

“There are great online resources already out there for students to use,” Morris said “However, the online resources aren’t a connection with a warm, caring teacher. The purpose of these videos is for students to be able to see a friendly teacher’s face each day modeling a fun lesson. We want to provide a social-emotional connection, routine, and engagement for our students as we all learn to navigate these unprecedented times.”

Morris, an adviser on the State Board of Education, warned that the pandemic and widespread closures are unprecedented for North Carolina. 

“State leaders don’t have a road map for what to do,” she said. “We didn’t have time to plan for this. We’re literally figuring it out as we go.”

Teachers will play an important role in helping state leaders navigate the next several weeks, she said.

“This is our time to shine and to show our communities across North Carolina that we can step up and that we can lean in and we can do what it takes to meet our students needs as well as our community needs,” the Moore County educator said.

Last Friday, Cooper said public schools would remain open, but he reversed course on Saturday, the same day a Wake County teacher tested positive for the virus. 

However, Cooper said that didn’t factor into his decision.

“We need a period of time here to assess the threat of COVID-19 and to make sure we have a coordinated statewide response to deal with the fallout when you don’t have children in schools,” Cooper said at a Saturday press conference. “I’m not sure there is a right or wrong here because there is so much we don’t know. If we are going to err here, we want to err on the side of caution.”

The governor has appointed a child nutrition task force to work on ways to ensure low-income students can still be fed and have their immediate needs met while out of school.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the State Board of Education adopted a resolution in support of school closures.

“We will seek to support our public schools across the state,” Board Chairman Eric Davis said in a statement. “Work is already underway to help feed children who are out of school. To serve students we will seek to leverage our existing digital capabilities and we will work with educators to find new ways to deliver instruction.”


Most of the state’s K-12 schools will remain open, at least for now

North Carolina is not recommending “preemptive closure” of schools in response to COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, Mandy K. Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Friday.

“However, things are changing rapidly,” Cohen said in an afternoon news conference. “We are both looking at the science, the advice from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) but also what’s happening around our communities, getting feedback from our superintendents, understanding what our other state partners are doing. We need to take in all of that input as we make decisions.”

Cohen’s remarks come a day after Durham Public Schools (DPS), Orange County Schools (OCS) and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) announced schools will close for several weeks beginning Monday.

Cohen noted that new CDC guidelines do not recommend preemptive closures.

But nationally, the number of state that are closing public schools is growing.

Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington State and the District of Columbia have ordered schools closed.

“We’re going to be taking in a lot of inputs, including understanding what our state partners are doing,” Cohen said. “We want to be on the phone with folks in Virginia and Maryland to understand their decisions.”

Cohen said closing schools can have lots of unintended consequences.

For example, she said 40 percent of school children are cared for by their grandparents, while the children’s parents work. The virus is especially dangerous to the elderly.

“How many of our kids are going to be with grandma and grandpa, understandably because mom and dad have to go to work, and then, are we putting grandma and grandpa at higher risk,” Cohen said.

Educators also worry that children who rely on school lunches will go without meals. They also worry about lost instructional time for students who don’t have access to the internet to participate in e-learning planned by some districts.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson told state leaders attending a meeting of the Governor’s Novel Coronavirus  Task Force on Thursday that parents with the means to keep their children at home are frustrated that schools have not closed.

District leaders have said e-learning opportunities will be provided while schools are closed. However, e-learning in rural districts could be more challenging.

“If, heaven forbid, we have to make the decision to close schools, we will also then have to hear from parents who struggle to keep their children at home, who might not have the internet connection,” Johnson said.

More K-12 districts could follow DPS, OCS and CHCCS, as the virus continues to spread. Many of the state’s universities, including the UNC System, are providing only online classes to help contain the disease.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction shared this information Friday about North Carolina students and teachers and their ability to access mobile learning devices:

  • The state does not have accurate data on device or internet access for school staff.
  • 850 (32%) schools do not have enough computers for every student.
  • 1,816 (70%) schools do not have a device for each student across all grades.
  • 2,204 (80%) schools do not have programs in place to send devices home for all grades.
  • 1,294 (49%) schools do not have alternate accommodations for students without internet.
  • 295 (11%) schools do not have a digital learning management system.
  • 485 (18%) schools report 50% or more of their students do not have internet access at home.


COVID-19, Education

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to take extended break due to COVID-19 concerns

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) on Thursday altered the district’s calendar due to concerns about COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

In a letter to educators and parents, CHCCS Superintendent Pam Baldwin said schools will remain closed until April 6, or longer.

“If all goes well, we will be back in school on Monday, April 6,” Baldwin wrote. “However, we understand the severity of the current situation and there are still many unknowns. That date could be altered depending on many factors.”

Here’s how Baldwin explained the decision:

“In recent weeks, we have been monitoring COVID-19 (Coronavirus), and have been in contact with our county and state authorities. We also hear the voices of our staff, our families and our community. We realize this is a difficult time, and may cause significant unpredictable hardships, and the decisions we make in response are very carefully considered. Clearly, the best method for mitigating the progression of the virus is to minimize the opportunities for transmission.”

Baldwin also shared a revised school calendar that shows March 16-18 as teacher workdays. Teachers will spend those days preparing for she described as a “prolonged period of extending learning.”

The district’s spring break begins March 19 and will run through March 27. Students will learn from home March 30 –April 3, Baldwin said. She said more information about students learning from home would be shared later.

Districts across North Carolina have suspended most extra-curricular activities such as athletic competitions and out-of-town field trips due to the threat of COVID-19.

K-12 closures in North Carolina appear inevitable when one considers the speed at which the virus is spreading.

Some states have already closed K-12 due to concern about the virus. Maryland announced Thursday that all public schools will close March 16-27. Schools have been asked to use spring break as makeup days.

A day earlier, the UNC System announced that all state-funded schools would deliver courses online only. Duke University in Durham and other private schools have opted to provide classes online.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson told state leaders attending Thursday’s meeting of the Governor’s Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force that parents with the means to keep children are frustrated that schools have not closed.

“If, heaven forbid, we have to make the decision to close schools, we will also then have to hear from parents who struggle to keep their children at home, who might not have the internet connection,” Johnson said. “And we know that there will be students who will not get the nutrition they need during the day.”



State Board of Education approves spending limits for superintendent

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

As expected Thursday, the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted policy revisions limiting the amount the state superintendent can spend without board approval.

The superintendent can now spend up to $500,000 without first getting SBE approval. The limit was $1 million.

The SBE proposed the new rules after Superintendent Mark Johnson made an “emergency” purchase in December to keep the Istation K-3 reading assessment tool in North Carolina classrooms. Johnson made the move after a “no-pay” contract with the firm expired.

Former state Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette cancelled the contract because he didn’t believe there was an emergency. Istation was awarded the contract after it was rebid.

The vote limiting the superintendent’s spending came a day after Johnson challenged a SBE contract for more than $30,000 with Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) to study the state’s accountability system, including the controversial A-F letter grading used to rate North Carolina’s schools.

The contract was not submitted for bid, which Johnson noted is required  under state law.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis said N.C. Department of Public Instruction officials are working to correct mistakes made in awarding the contract.