Virginia health providers: “Kids are completely excited about getting a shot.”

Editor’s note: Earlier this week, Policy Watch reported on North Carolina’s progress in administering 24,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 5 to 11. Our neighbors to the north report nearly 5 percent of Virginia’s 5 to 11-year-olds have gotten their first doses and officials are hoping for continued demand. The Virginia Mercury’s Kate Masters reports:

7 year old Lydia Melo gets a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo credit: Duke University)

More than 35,000 children were vaccinated in the first week of Virginia’s pediatric rollout

Among the things that Pearl Barry is excited to do once she’s fully vaccinated: hang out with friends, eat inside at restaurants and visit SkyZone, a sprawling indoor trampoline park.

“I mean, obviously,” said the eight-year-old from Bon Air. “Who wouldn’t be?” She got her first dose of Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine on Wednesday night, and besides the hour-long wait at her local Walgreens, the process went relatively smoothly. The shot itself felt like the smallest pinch ever, Pearl said — more like a mosquito bite. And her dad, Tim Barry, was equally relieved to see both Pearl and her 5-year-old sister, June, take their first steps toward full immunization.

“Pearl probably asks to go to SkyZone two or three times a week,” he said. “So we’re really excited to have this coincide with Christmas and be able to be more free about seeing friends and family.”

Across Virginia, other parents are feeling the same jubilation. In the first week after federal officials authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 5 to 11-year-olds, more than 35,000 children received their first dose — close to 5 percent of the state’s total population in that age group, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

The rush by many families to embrace pediatric vaccines has been a relief for state health officials after national polling (conducted before the federal authorization) indicated only 27 percent of parents planned to get their children immunized “right away.” VDH hasn’t released demographic data on the 5 to 11-year-olds who have already received their first doses, making it difficult to determine whether disparities have emerged between different groups in getting the shots. Read more

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.

Senate committee advances controversial bill to restrict what can be taught in state’s schools

A controversial Republican-backed bill to restrict what can be taught in schools about America’s racial past crossed another hurdle Wednesday.

House Bill 324 received a favorable report from the Rules and Operations Committee of the Senate. The Senate’s Education/Higher Committee gave the bill a favorable nod Tuesday.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, told colleagues that the bill doesn’t prohibit educators from teaching hard truths about America’s history.

“It does call for the limitation on promoting certain concepts,” Berger said, adding that the bill would prohibit teachers from “indoctrinating” students with what critics of public education contend is liberal political ideology.

When Sen. Paul Lowe, a Democrat from Forsyth County asked Berger why HB 324 is necessary, Berger explained that it addresses concerns parents have about what children are taught in schools.

“If you have witnessed what is taking place at school board meetings across the state, where parents and members of the public are coming forward expressing concern about [teacher] training sessions that are taking place, expressing concerns about some aspects of what these parents feel are indoctrination of their children; I think this bill is responding to those concerns that have been expressed by those parents,” Berger said.

Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, asked if the curricula adopted by the State Board of Education ensure teachers don’t stray off course.

“Aren’t they [state school board members] the ones who put the curriculum in place for the public schools?” Waddell asked.

Berger said that if the curricula don’t promote the concepts prohibited in HB 324, the bill wouldn’t impact it.

As presently drafted, HB 324 would ban the following concepts from being discussed in public school classrooms:

  • One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.
  • An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex.
  • An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
  • Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.
  • A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.
  • The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex.
  • The United States government should be violently overthrown.
  • Particular character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs should be ascribed to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.
  • The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.
  • All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.

Several people spoke in favor of HB 324 when public comments were allowed. Most of the speakers also made remarks Tuesday during the Senate’s Education/Higher Education Committee meeting.

Natalya Androsova, a Wake County resident who moved to America from Russia 22 years ago, compared what’s being taught in America’s public schools to the communist propaganda she experienced while living in the Soviet Union.

Androsova said she withdrew her children from the public school system to homeschool them.

She said Critical Race Theory and Marxism are embedded in the curriculum.

“I can’t allow my child to absorb any of that drunk ideology because it destroys dignity or human beings,” Androsova said.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline from the world of higher education that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Jim Walsh, a Wake County resident, said the NC Department of Public Instruction is a “loose dog” that has failed to prevent teachers from indoctrinating students.

Walsh suggested that HB 324 be amended to require classrooms to be outfitted with cameras and teachers with body cameras like those worn by police officers.

“The teachers are no better than our policemen,” he said.

Editorial to state schools superintendent: Serve kids, not partisan politics

Catherine Truitt

Be sure to check out this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com — “Truitt’s job is to stand with school children, not political patrons.” The essay sends a powerful reminder to the state’s still-newish state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, that she needs to rediscover the persona she projected early on in her tenure when she evinced a desire to avoid the destructive partisanship and rigid ideological nonsense that plagued her overmatched predecessor, Mark Johnson.

Sadly, as the editorial notes, Truitt’s recent endorsement of the desultory and pathetically inadequate state Senate budget proposal makes clear that will take some doing:

It is now quite clear that partisan politics is Catherine Truitt’s priority as North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. That is the only conclusion any reasonable observer can reach following her statement that the budget passed late last month by the state Senate “does so much to boost North Carolina’s public school system.”

Her priority, demonstrating fealty to Senate Leader Phil Berger and other legislative leaders, is misplaced.

As an independently elected statewide leader her focus should be, regardless of partisan leanings, on North Carolina’s public-school students, the concerns of their parents, the necessary instructional resources, welfare and working conditions of classroom teachers and support for educational staff and administrators.

As the editorial explains in great detail, the budget proposal for education is an outrage — especially at a moment in which the state continues to repeatedly violate court orders to provide all the state’s schoolchildren with access to a sound basic education. Again, here’s the editorial:

The courts used a professional, non-partisan process to come up with a workable and reasonable plan to remediate that problem. That program, however, is barely funded by the Senate – just 15% to 20% of the $1.6 billion required. Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fully-fund the remediation plan.

How can anyone suggest that a 1.5% annual raise is appropriate for teachers who haven’t seen a raise in the last two years, much less a “show of appreciation for their tireless work carried on throughout COVID.” It is an insult particularly given the extraordinary extra effort teachers displayed on a routine basis through the pandemic – too often the unsung among the front-line workers.

After listing other ways in which the budget proposal comes up woefully short, the editorial offers this on-the-mark conclusion:

Legislative leaders don’t need any more cheerleaders.

But the school children of North Carolina do.

Truitt must stand up for the public schools – the students, teachers, staff and administrators — she was elected to lead.

Public schools and the state’s school children are being sold short in the Senate budget. It is Truitt’s job to say so and make sure it gets fixed.

Amen.

Click here to read the full editorial.

House passes bill seeking to lift mask mandate in NC schools

The N.C. House passed a bill seeking to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year on Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip away Governor Roy Cooper’s authority to  issue state-wide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency. 

The Governor’s current executive order requires all students in public and nonpublic schools to wear face masks while indoors. On June 11, Cooper announced he would be extending the State of Emergency, saying that although the state has made massive strides in combating COVID-19, the emergency classification allows for easier access to federal relief funds. 

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, presented the bill to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican, added an amendment to the bill that would require all local school boards to take a vote on whether or not they will require face masks by August 1. If a school does require masks, they will have to revisit the issue every month and hold a vote on whether or not to keep them. 

“It’s supposed to increase transparency and communication with parents who are concerned about this issue,” Paré said. 

Two members of the public spoke in support of the bill, including Tracy Taylor, a physical therapist based in the triangle. 

“The most important thing that I want to explain to you all is that there have been so many studies and so much data that are in support of students not masking at all,” she said. 

Taylor was also a part of a “Free the Smiles” rally that was held outside the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services building on Wednesday.

“Bring your friends + signs to let Mandy Cohen know our kids don’t need to be masked at school,” she wrote on Twitter. 

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that over 4 million children in the U.S. had contracted COVID-19, but the mortality rate among infected children was between 0.00 percent – 0.03 percent. According to data from 23 states, between 0.1 percent – 1.9 percent of all child COVID-19 cases were severe enough to require hospitalization. 

In a press conference earlier this month, NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen said that it’s important that children under 12, who are ineligible to get the vaccine, continue to wear masks in school.

“The CDC continues to recommend that those who are unvaccinated … wear a mask indoors. That includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools and that will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC,” she said.

Willis said that the bill is flexible enough to mitigate infection in schools while also loosening restrictions. 

“This still allows the governor to act on a school by school basis if necessary,” he said. “If there were something to come up where a different strain were to come through, or something were to happen, I’m sure we’d be happy to bring that back in front of this body for a larger discussion. But we’re comfortable with where it’s at today.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate.