Time to mandate masks in schools

Let’s establish an important fact up front: masks are one of the most important ways to contain the spread of COVID-19.

  • A review of 19 randomized controlled trials found that universal mask wearing is important for preventing COVID, where transmission may occur before a person becomes symptomatic.
  • Countries that introduced mandated masking within 30 days of the first case had dramatically fewer COVID cases than those that delayed beyond 100 days.
  • States requiring mask-wearing in public are estimated to have averted between 230,000-450,000 cases of COVID between April and May 2020.
  • Universal mask wearing can build solidarity in our communities and combat fear and stigma that our loved ones and neighbors may face around wearing a mask.

In North Carolina, only about one-quarter of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 have received both shots. Students under 12 are still ineligible for vaccines.

While children are less likely than adults to die of COVID, they can catch and spread the disease, endangering staff and families. 40 percent of North Carolina adults remain unvaccinated and thousands more are immunocompromised. Transmission of the virus propagates variants that will prolong the pandemic.

In addition to spreading the disease, children are not invulnerable to complications. At least 337 children have died from COVID, including an eight-year-old girl from Durham. At least 4,196 children have developed Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). MIS-C can lead to life-threatening problems with the heart and other organs in the body and has led to at least 37 deaths. Even if the risks are small, no child deserves to face lethal risks from preventable disease.

Given the above, the Governor must work with the Council of State to require masks in our schools for all students and staff. With the delta variant causing new cases to rise at alarming rates, delegating this decision to the state’s 115 school boards and the state’s 200 charter schools will be disastrous. Simply encouraging school leaders to do the right thing is not enough.

On Thursday, the Governor indicated he recommends that schools require masks, but he will not exercise his authority to mandate their use. As a result, too many school boards controlled by conservatives, will largely eschew masks, exacerbating spread in their communities. Already, Beaufort County, Cabarrus County, Caldwell County, Carteret County, Catawba County, Clay County, Cleveland County, Gaston County, Harnett County, Haywood County, Iredell-Statesville, Mooresville, Lincoln County, Madison County, Pender County, Randolph County, Rowan-Salisbury, Sampson County, Stokes County, Union County, and Watauga County have voted to make masks optional in their schools. Many more are sure to follow.

In addition to being bad science, the Governor’s most recent order puts incredible pressure on boards wanting to maintain a mask mandate. Read more

Duke study highlights the need for in-school reforms to truly integrate schools

An innovative new study from researchers at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy examines the racial segregation that takes place within North Carolina schools, highlighting the need for more deliberate school-level policies to truly integrate schools.

While many studies have examined segregation across districts and schools, this study provides a rare, in-depth look at the segregation that happens within a school building. The report’s findings bolster the recommendations of education advocates calling for a deeper understanding of school integration that looks beyond simply moving students in one school building or the other.

The within-school segregation identified by the Duke report is often the result of student tracking – grouping students according to their (supposed) ability level. Tracking can be a problematic driver of inequality. First, the groupings may reflect the biases of educators or be a product of parental pressure, denying opportunities on the basis of race and class. Second, the “advanced” groups tend to be assigned to more experienced teachers with more engaging curricula, widening opportunities going forward.

Data confirms that students of color in North Carolina are frequently tracked into lower-level classes. CREED’s E(race)ing Inequities report detailed how students of color in North Carolina are underrepresented in honors and AP courses and have higher chances of being taught by novice teachers.

The Duke report finds that both middle and high schools, but not elementary schools, exhibit a substantial amount of within-school segregation. Interestingly, the researchers find that schools with lower across-school segregation often have higher levels of within-school segregation.

The researchers illuminate this point by contrasting segregation in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties. In the early 2000s, Mecklenburg County embraced a “neighborhood schools” approach and saw a substantial increase in segregation across schools. By contrast, Wake County embraced an integration policy, seeking to keep schools relatively balanced in terms of student income. But while Wake County’s schools appeared integrated, the researchers’ examination of classroom assignments found another story:

Although Mecklenburg County had by far the highest between-school segregation among the five, no county exceeded the within-school segregation levels of Wake County.

The researchers also find, somewhat surprisingly, that segregation between white and Hispanic students was more extreme than that between white and Black students. This is noteworthy as the share of Hispanic students in North Carolina schools has grown from 3% in 1998 to 17% in 2017.

Finally, the report found that Black and Hispanic students tended to be enrolled in less rigorous courses than their white peers. The underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students relative to white students in advanced courses means that “Black and Hispanic students in North Carolina are exposed to a qualitatively different curriculum than are White students, with the latter being more likely to be in advanced courses.”

In all, the report’s findings provide an important reminder real integration isn’t achieved simply by moving students between schools. Educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders must continue to push for policies and practices that harbor real integration at the classroom level.

The idea of real integration is best described by the student leaders of Integrate NYC, who have outlined the “5Rs of Real Integration.” Their framework includes specific policy recommendations under each of the following areas to create schools that are truly integrated:

  1. Race and Enrollment: Schools must provide a diverse and inclusive environment for every NYC public school student.
  2. Resources: Funding systems must provide equitable distribution of resources across schools to meet the constitutional requirements of a “sound, basic education.”
  3. Relationships: Schools must be considerate and empathetic of the identities of all students, focus on the power of different backgrounds, and act of build relationships between students across group identities.
  4. Restorative Justice: All high schools should be free of police and military presence, safe, free of metal detectors, protective of the integrity and humanity of each student, and help build student leaders.
  5. Representation: School faculties should be inclusive, elevating the voices of communities of color, immigrant communities, and the LGBT community so that student identities and experiences are reflected in the leadership.

Such reforms (more detail on which can be found here) are long overdue in North Carolina schools. As the Duke study documents, North Carolina schools remain far too segregated. As a result, Black and Hispanic students continue to be denied the same curriculum and opportunities being offered to white students.

Report: Federal grants to NC charter schools found to promote racial and economic segregation

A June report from the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on strengthening public schools, uncovers how North Carolina is using the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) to finance schools that have historically served as schools of white flight.

North Carolina’s charters contribute to the racial and economic segregation of our public school system. North Carolina charter schools – on average – tend to attract students who are whiter and wealthier than the surrounding community. CSP looks to counter these trends by providing certain charter schools grants to help support services for students from families with lower incomes. According to the Network for Public Education, however, North Carolina officials have directed much of this funding to schools with a history of serving as white flight charter schools and enrolling substantially fewer students from families with low incomes than nearby inclusive public schools.

The history of certain CSP-funded charters brings into question their commitment to serving a diverse student body and whether or not they deserve large supplemental funding grants. While North Carolina law requires charters to “make efforts for the population of the school to reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the” district in which the charter is located, many of the CSP recipient charters have been ignoring this law for years.

According to their analysis, at least 11 of the schools (several charter recipients do not provide information on student demographics) are racially segregated as compared to the district in which they’re located. These schools include: Read more

Senate budget writers opt to violate constitution, denying NC students the education they are owed

The Senate budget proposal unveiled this week contains a shocking admission: Senate leaders are content to violate their oath to uphold the North Carolina Constitution, denying full citizenship to the state’s 1.5 million public school students.

Over the past 27 years as part of the Leandro court case, North Carolina courts have consistently found – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – that the state has failed to provide all students with access to the “sound basic education” that they are owed under our constitution. In the case’s most recent development, Judge David Lee has ordered state leaders to fully implement a seven-year plan to meet this constitutional obligation by the 2027-28 school year.

Lawmakers have leaned on a bevy of excuses over the years for failing to provide students with the education they are owed. Some pointed to uncertainty around the specific steps necessary to fully deliver a constitutional education and financing the necessary systemic investments. Others thought the reforms too expensive, requiring unpopular tax increases.

In 2021, those excuses no longer hold water.

We know what steps must be taken. Lawmakers have at their disposal a detailed, seven-year plan documenting the fiscal, programmatic, and strategic steps necessary to provide students the education they are owed. The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan is informed by multiple years of intense study from some of the nation’s top independent education experts. Those experts (as well as the courts) have reviewed and endorsed the Plan, which would ramp up state investment over a seven-year period to meet the state’s constitutional requirements by the 2027-28 school year. The Plan shows, year-by-year, the specific investments necessary to provide all students with access to high-quality and diverse teachers and principals, how to create a school finance system that’s adequate and equitable, the supports necessary to help schools overcome poverty-related barriers, how to nurture our youngest children so they start kindergarten on similar footing, and the reforms necessary to improve ties to college and careers.

Lawmakers don’t even have to do the technical work to convert the plan into actionable legislation. Both the Governor’s Recommended Budget and HB 946 would fully implement the first two years of the Plan.

Nor can lawmakers cry poverty. Read more

New Duke University study: Big, unresolved problems continue to plague NC’s school voucher program

A new report from Duke University’s Children’s Law Clinic outlines the many ways in which North Carolina’s largest school voucher program continues to suffer from glaring policy weaknesses. These policy weaknesses increase the likelihood that voucher students are receiving an inferior education than their peers in public schools, delivering a bad deal to students and residents alike.

The report – an update to a 2017 study – finds that the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program:

  • Is poorly designed to promote better academic outcomes for students;
  • Fails to provide the public or policymakers with useful information on whether voucher students are making academic progress or falling behind;
  • Demand for the program has fallen short of the General Assembly’s projections, resulting in unused funds in every year since the program’s inception;
  • Nearly all voucher students (92 percent) are attending religious schools, more than three quarters of which use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards;
  • The NC State Education Administration Authority (SEAA), which administers the program, has provided the General Assembly with a method to evaluate the program’s academic effectiveness, but the General Assembly has failed to act on the recommendations;
  • Unlike many other states, North Carolina places no requirements on voucher schools in terms of accreditation, curriculum, teacher licensure, or accountability;
  • A lack of financial monitoring creates risks for students and nearby public schools that must absorb students when private schools fail; and
  • Voucher schools are allowed to discriminate against students and their families on the basis of religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The table below, from the report, demonstrates the glaring extent to which North Carolina’s voucher program is the most unaccountable, unregulated voucher program in the country.

The report’s findings are largely unchanged from the 2017 study and are consistent with concerns raised by the North Carolina Justice Center and other organizations that support strong, inclusive public schools.

Despite the thorough documentation of the voucher program’s glaring weaknesses, legislative leaders have refrained from enacting school quality requirements such as accreditation or approval of curricula. Legislative leaders have also stymied any attempt to meaningfully evaluate the academic performance of voucher students. For example, H569 would have made the changes necessary evaluate student performance of voucher students, but leadership refused to provide the bill a hearing. Perhaps leaders were discouraged that recent evaluations of statewide voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Washington DC have revealed negative impacts for voucher students.

Rather than address the program’s many shortcomings, House and Senate leaders are competing to expand these unaccountable programs. Their solution to lack of demand is to loosen eligibility requirements, expand subsidies to families who never intended to enroll in public school, and spend $500,000 per year on marketing.

As this Duke report highlights, however, ignoring the many programs plaguing the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program won’t make those problems go away.