Candidate for state superintendent Jen Mangrum calls for increased transparency at the Department of Public Instruction

by Dr. Jennifer Mangrum, candidate for the office of NC state superintendent

Transparency is obviously an important feature of democratic institutions like the Department of Public Instruction and our schools. A functioning democracy rests on providing voters and policymakers with the information they need to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, too many politicians claim they value transparency while running for office only to backtrack once assuming office. I firmly believe that a dedication to transparency will do more than just better inform the public. If implemented wisely, a dedication to transparency will also strengthen our policy-making process. 

There are many ways in which the Superintendent can advance the various aspects of transparency. 

For the press, transparency means quick access to accurate information. They would like Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled in a timely manner. Under the current Superintendent, turnaround times for these requests have taken far too long. 

For researchers, a dedication to transparency means making school data more readily available and usable. Historically, the agency has done a good job of making data publicly available on its website. However, a recent website redesign disappeared some previously available data and reports. I would change the presentation of that data to make it easier for researchers to identify how data has changed over time. 

For lawmakers interested in the proper stewardship of state funds, transparency under my watch will mean adherence to state procurement and contracting processes. Under my watch, these efforts will follow the advice of experts. I will not intervene, as my predecessor has, to direct contracts to cronies or illegally divert school district money to buy unneeded iPads. 

For advocates and community members, I think we can do a better job of making state and district budget and spending data more accessible. Additionally, I have pledged to establish an internal office of equity that will help identify areas where we’re failing to provide students with the opportunity to flourish. 

Transparency has always been about more than just providing additional access to information. One of the more important ways I’ll advance transparency is by giving educators a voice in our policymaking process. For the past four years, policymaking has too often been “done” to our educators. I know we need a different approach. We make smarter decisions when we harness educators’ on-the-ground expertise. Whether via surveys or the establishment of elected advisory boards, I’m continuing to explore options to provide educators with an authentic voice in the policymaking process. 

Finally, transparent also means “free from pretense or deceit.” My opponent has had some difficulty adhering to this concept. On June 25 th , EdNC asked us to explain how we would work with the Governor and General Assembly. As part of her response, my opponent falsely claimed she worked, “to pass the largest single teacher pay raise in North Carolina history” while working as Pat McCrory’s education advisor in 2016. This is not anywhere close to true. My records only go back 27 years, but over that period there were 11 other teacher pay raises that were larger than the plan she worked on. 

This deceit is part of a pattern. As part of the McCrory administration, my opponent overstated the size of her boss’s budget proposal, understated the extent to which teacher turnover rose under Republican rule, and most famously tried to claim that the budget she worked on was going to take average teacher salaries north of $50,000. 

It’s clear that we have a tremendous opportunity to once again make transparency – in all of its aspects – a priority at DPI. By being open, inclusive, and, most importantly, honest, we will do a better job of identifying the barriers to flourishing faced by our students and teachers while making smarter decisions about the policies that affect their success.

“I am petrified”: CMS educators set the record straight on their feelings about teaching in person during the COVID pandemic

image credit: Nan Fulcher

Recent comments about Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employee survey data by a member of the Board of Education who is pushing for a reopening of schools are not sitting well with local educators.  

Many of those educators are weighing in on a new informal survey created by education advocates to gauge employee sentiment about a potential return to in-person instruction during the COVID pandemic.  The results of that survey will be shared at Tuesday’s board meeting, where educators plan to address the board to share their personal stories and feelings about the topic.

On July 7, employees of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools received a non-binding Intent to Return survey designed to inform district plans around staffing for school year 2020-21.  

The survey allowed employees to indicate their preference between the following options:

Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor

Resign

Retire

I have applied or intend to apply for a leave of absence related to COVID-19

I am requesting an alternative work arrangement, e.g. working remotely, if available for my position, for reasons related to COVID-19

The “alternative work arrangement” option was available only to employees who qualified as high risk:

High-risk categories include individuals 65 years or older or those with underlying medical conditions such as the following:

• People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
• People who have serious heart conditions or who are immunocompromised
• People with diabetes, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis or renal failure or liver disease
• People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)

It’s worth noting that ‘pregnant or planning to become pregnant’ is absent from the high-risk list, despite increasing indications that pregnant women are more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID than other women their age and evidence that the virus can be passed in utero.

For educators like myself who took this survey, the choices essentially boiled down to “have a job” or “not be able to feed your kids.”  

Indeed, of the 12,073 responses registered on the survey, 10,651 selected Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor.

Board members were informed of the Intent to Return survey results the morning of July 15, the same day an emergency meeting was scheduled where the board planned to vote on whether to open schools under moderate social distancing guidelines (Plan B) or fully remote (Plan C).  (The board would vote 7-1 at that meeting in favor of a slightly different model in which students and staff would report to school for two weeks of socially distant in-person onboarding before returning to remote instruction.  Only District 6 board member Sean Strain voted against the plan, arguing that students needed to be in school.)

In informing board members about the survey data, Human Resources Director Christine Pejot cautioned there could be what she termed “false positives” among responses indicating employees intended to report on-site.  She advised board members to be aware that intentions could change based on a number of factors including increases in COVID cases in Mecklenburg County.

In a July 18 WFAE story, Sean Strain was quoted as having said in a text message “Kids are being kept from their best educational environment because 10% of the teachers are afraid to work in the schools,” ostensibly referring to the relatively high percentage of staff who had indicated they would remain in their current school assignment on the Intent to Return survey.

Many CMS educators were not happy with having their survey responses characterized that way, noting that the questionnaire didn’t ask anyone about their feelings. 

Veteran West Charlotte High School teacher Erlene Lyde said, “I am petrified at the thought of entering a school building with students and other  adults. Being in a space where I know the viral load is increasing exponentially by the second makes me anxious, worried and afraid. No question on that intent form was designed to capture that fear.” 

Melissa Easley, a teacher at McClintock Middle School, added, “No one should have to choose between their job and the safety of themselves and their families.”

In response to social media outrage, Strain initially posted “I have NEVER said that 12% are afraid to return” and referred to claims to the contrary as “a false narrative.”  He later said he didn’t recall having sent the text before eventually acknowledging that he had–and that WFAE reporter Steve Harrison had represented it accurately.

A group of local education advocates has now created a survey to collect some actual data on the feelings of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employees about the prospect of returning to in-person classes.  The survey results will be presented during the public comments portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Board of Education.  

At the time of this writing, with over 3,000 responses, only 21.6% indicated they felt “confident” about returning to the school building for Plan B (moderate social distancing), with more than 78% saying they were either “hesitant” or “not confident.”

Those numbers closely mirror Senator Natasha Marcus’s recent data collection, which found that 76.7% of public school employees thought schools should do remote instruction only until COVID numbers improved.

You can tune in to tonight’s school board meeting on Facebook Live at 6 pm here.

Plan C is the right choice for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Today the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education will vote on whether to reopen schools (Plan B) or to continue with remote instruction for the time being (Plan C). It’s a decision with huge ramifications for nearly 150,000 students and 20,000 employees.

The board will enter closed session at 3:30 and is scheduled to begin a public meeting at 4:30 where a vote will be held. You can view the meeting on Facebook Live here.

Reopening schools would have 1/3 of students rotate through at a time while the other 2/3 learn at home or at a daycare facility with other children.

Under Plan B, parents would also have the option of choosing full remote if they are not comfortable with the risk of sending their children to school. Although there would likely be a limited number of “alternative assignment” remote teaching positions available to people who fit certain high risk categories, thousands of CMS employees would not have a choice but to return to full time face-to-face work.

COVID is still largely a mystery to medical experts, and while we can say that health and safety are our number one priorities, we have to admit that none of us has a real handle on how much danger we’re facing right now or how much risk we’d be taking on by opening our buildings to in-person learning. We don’t know if this virus can be contracted twice, we don’t know how much children spread it, and we don’t know what the permanent damage to the bodies of those who survive COVID-19 might be.

In fact, about the only things we know for sure is that this virus is highly contagious, potentially deadly and that it is disproportionately impacting families of color. We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your safest way to not get it is to avoid crowds of people.

I think every educator agrees that the best place for our students is in school. We feel that in the very fabric of who we are, and it’s the reason that we stay in this often underpaid and under-respected profession, because we know that our schools can open doors of opportunity for our students and provide for so many of their needs.

With all of that said, as we weigh the risks and benefits of each approach we have to look at the data and the facts. Yesterday North Carolina set new records in single day deaths from COVID and new hospitalizations, and COVID infection rates in Mecklenburg County are much higher than they are anywhere else in NC.

If the Governor’s offering of an optional plan C for any county that needs it was the right choice for any county it would be Mecklenburg.

That’s why the most prudent choice for our board today is Plan C. I would like to see our board work with local and state health officials and take a systematic, data-driven approach to this problem by setting a benchmark infection rate goal for our community to achieve before the risk is low enough to justify reopening schools. A decision of this kind of importance should be made through that kind of careful consideration of facts and data and not through emotions.

I wish our local officials the best as they grapple with how to best guide our community through this difficult time.

A warning for Governor Cooper: the burden of COVID-19 in NC is far higher than in countries that struggled with school outbreaks after reopening

co authored by Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter

Governor Roy Cooper is expected to announce today whether North Carolina’s schools will fully reopen, reopen to reduced numbers of students, or remain closed and continue with remote learning when the 2020-21 school year begins on August 17.

On Saturday we wrote about the COVID-19 data that North Carolina school officials are mulling over. In analyzing the specific points presented by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to the NC State Board of Education, we noted the scarcity of information on COVID-19 spread in schools, and the potential for misinterpreting the few studies that do exist.

In our article, we only addressed the studies cited by the NCDHHS that supported the statement “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission.”

We did not address the fact that the NCDHHS failed to include other data in their report — information about countries that had already reopened their schools prior to the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

To shed more light on reopened schools, we now highlight a recent New York Times (NYT) article, which was published the same day as our last blog article.

The NYT outlines critical considerations for reopening U.S. schools, citing much of the same research we analyzed — and identifying the same flaws.

In addition, the authors discuss what happened when countries reopened their schools following initial closure due to the first COVID-19 cases. Information about reopened schools was absent from the NCDHHS’s literature review. This data could have greatly helped to inform discussion about North Carolina’s plan for the upcoming school year.

The NYT article cites the report entitled “Summary of School Re-Opening Models and Implementation Approaches During the COVID 19 Pandemic, which was distributed by the University of Washington Department of Global Health (updated 7-6-2020). 

To set the stage for analyzing the UW report, we generated some values that reflect the COVID-19 burden in each country at the time they reopened their schools. Because the studies had different methods for determining transmission rates, direct comparison of each country’s infection data was not possible.

Therefore, to illustrate the prevalence of COVID-19 in each country, we determined the number of new daily cases expressed as a fraction of the country’s total population. (For example, Denmark had 198 new reported cases the day schools reopened; that value divided by the total population of 5.8 million equals 0.34 cases/10,000 people) [source of data for new daily cases and cumulative cases]

Table 1. COVID-19 infection data from six countries on the date that schools reopened.

In the UW report, the authors considered Denmark and Norway to be among the European countries with low community transmission, while Germany was considered to be “higher”. This conclusion doesn’t track with our calculations, but high variability among the number of new daily case reports at the time could account for the discrepancy.

As for the outcome of reopening schools, the UW report presented the following results: [*NOTE: each country employed different mitigation measures and different strategies for grouping students and determining which ages returned to school.] 

Denmark and Norway – These two countries reopened schools gradually, starting with preschool and then all students six weeks later. This approach did not result in an increased rate of growth of COVID-19 cases in either country.

Germany – The return of older students later in the reopening process was accompanied by increased transmission among students; staff infection rates were equivalent to that of the general population. Individual schools were closed for quarantine as outbreaks occurred. Recently, Germany closed a small number of schools preemptively in response to local community outbreaks.

Israel – Schools adopted fewer social distancing measures due to crowding. After reopening schools, over 300 children and staff were infected within a month, with over 130 cases at a single school. Around 200 schools out of 5,200 were closed for quarantine during June, others remaining open through the end of the month. 

South Korea – Soon after reopening, schools near a warehouse facility outbreak were closed and other schools postponed reopening. Other closings have occurred in response to other small community clusters. No reports of school-related infections have been reported to date.

France – There were no publications on the outcome, but news accounts indicate that, despite a small number of cases (70 per 1.2 million students) after gradual opening in mid-May, cases have subsided and schools have fully reopened with no additional outbreaks.

The overall conclusion from UW was that reopening schools in countries where community transmission was low did not increase overall spread, but opening schools in countries where community transmission was higher correlated with school outbreaks and subsequent school closures. 

To consider how reopening U.S. schools will compare to the other countries’ experiences, we looked at the current data for new daily cases for the entire country and for North Carolina (Table 2). 

Table 2. Current COVID-19 infection data (7-11-2020) for the United States and North Carolina.

It’s clear that none of the countries that reopened schools in late spring had anywhere near the extent of COVID-19 that’s present in the U.S

Further, the value for new daily cases from each country that reopened schools (with the exception of Israel) continued to decline after school was back in session. 

With transmission rates continuing to rise in the U.S. and in North Carolina, the number of daily new cases in both places could double by the time school starts on August 17th.

If the experience of other countries holds true — that COVID-19 spread in reopened schools reflects the prevalence of the infection in the community — reopening schools where the number of active cases is high would present an enormous risk for students and staff in those areas. 

Even if children don’t pass along SARS-CoV-2 as easily as adults, there could still be a significant increase in spread among students and their families in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

NC school officials urgently need to consider the lessons from other countries’ school reopening experiences, and look at the pace at which the virus is spreading right now … and where it’s predicted to be this fall and beyond.

Nan Fulcher earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina, specializing in infectious disease research. She’s involved in science and outdoor education programming for children and does freelance graphic design.

Here’s what North Carolina health officials might be missing in the data they’re using to push school reopening

co authored by Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter

This week state health agencies presented information to the North Carolina State Board of Education regarding COVID-19 and schools.  

Representatives of both the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and the North Carolina Pediatric Society made the case that the risk of children spreading COVID-19 in schools is minimal and must be balanced against student needs that can be most effectively met with schools open.

The presentation offered a potential preview of a school reopening announcement that Governor Roy Cooper is expected to make in the next few days.

However, the data that NCDHHS is using to drive this important conversation doesn’t necessarily support the conclusion that opening schools is safe for our children, and grim anecdotal evidence emerging from around the country suggests the actual risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools may be much higher than currently predicted.

During this week’s state board meeting, State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Tilson advised board members that “Schools have not really seemed to play a major role in transmission” and talked through this series of bullet points downplaying the possibility that North Carolina’s schools could become a hotbed for COVID-19:

Navigating-COVID-19-Schools-primer-3

The original source of the information on this slide is the Massachusetts Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance document, which was released last month as that state’s plan for the 2020-21 school year. The evidence for that document’s statement “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission” is based on the following studies:  

1) In France, a February study of one of the very first accounts of COVID-19 in Europe, involved a nine-year-old child who went to three different schools following infection by an adult and none of the 115 contacts at those facilities contracted the virus. 

2) In Ireland, 3 children and 3 adults who tested positive for COVID-19 at different schools in March didn’t infect any of the 1,155 total individuals with whom they had some sort of contact.

3) In Australia, evaluation of the 863 contacts encountered by 9 students and 9 teachers at their corresponding primary and secondary schools in April showed that only one other student became infected.

 4) A review article from early May, analyzing COVID-19 case clusters. For example, a cluster would consist of an infected person as well as anyone else who got infected directly by the individual or secondarily via the individual’s network. The study examined the location of transmission and showed that only 4% (8 of 210) of the clusters involved schools.

This small collection of studies provides minimal evidence for the dynamics of COVID-19 spread in schools. Thus, the NCDHHS summary statement that “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission” may convey a more definitive conclusion than warranted, especially to those unfamiliar with the data. 

A closer analysis of the four studies reveal flaws that further call this conclusion into question.

One pitfall has to do with the reason there are so few studies about viral transmission in schools in the first place.

When the virus started to spread in the Spring of 2020, schools were quickly closed. The only studies about the virus in schools come from public health teams that were able to document cases just as in-person classes were being cancelled. And once schools closed, the chance to study COVID-19 in that setting disappeared.

The fact that schools weren’t open during the majority of the study period affects the interpretation of this research. In the case studies from France, Ireland, and Australia, infected people were pulled out of school immediately, disrupting transmission. Of course this is proper procedure from a public health standpoint, but it might not reflect what would happen in every school going forward. For example, if an infected subject didn’t seek testing or quarantine as rapidly, the transmission rate could be much higher. There is also the potential for spread by infected, but asymptomatic, individuals.

Another consideration is that when these studies were being done in the Spring of 2020, SARS-CoV-2 was truly exotic, with single cases (typically acquired by travel) dropping into an unsuspecting community. 

Today, after months of full-on community spread–not to mention the alarming rates of infection in many areas of the U.S.–it’s more likely that schools will be contending with multiple cases simultaneously, and on a continuing basis. These factors would almost certainly cause higher transmission rates compared to those from the earlier reports.

The other NCDHHS bullet point “If infected, children may be less likely to infect others with COVID-19” is also undermined by school closings. 

In the three reports cited for this statement, pediatric cases from China, Switzerland, and the U.S. (Chicago) were being collected just as schools were shutting down. Thus, the conclusion that children weren’t spreading to other children was skewed by the fact that routine contact with their schoolmates and playmates was no longer occurring. Instead, children were isolated within their family group, which may or may not have included other children.

Even the results of the cluster analysis are likely to be skewed because it’s not a fair comparison. 

Infection clusters can’t develop in schools when the doors are locked. In contrast, activities like in-person church attendance, which is still going strong in some places, can spawn new clusters. Thus, the number of religious gathering clusters would be over-represented in a survey like this, undercutting the proportion–and therefore underestimating the significance–of school clusters.

It’s also important to note that, in identifying the eight school clusters in their study, the authors actually prove that schools CAN be a focal point of viral spread.

One of the clusters cited is the dramatic case associated with the Salanter Akiba Riverdale school in New York, where over sixty people including staff, students, and family members were infected, although some transmission may have occurred via events outside school. 

Another citation is from Singapore, where, despite the heroic measures of enhanced hygiene, staggered classes, temperature checks, and a week-long break away from school, there were still eight reported cases before the school was closed eleven days later. 

This set of clusters is just a small collection of anecdotes, but they may be instructive for considering the spectrum of scenarios that could play out in our public schools.

Studies about school-based COVID-19 spread are paused for now, but anecdotal evidence from other places where children gather may reveal what’s on the horizon when schools reopen.

Recent reports of skyrocketing infections at daycare facilities (Texas and Charlotte, NC, for example) and the summer camp outbreaks in Missouri and Arkansas do not bode well for North Carolina schools filled–even partly–with potential carriers of COVID-19.

In summary, the available data for COVID-19 spread in schools does not present an open-and-shut case of guaranteed low risk for students and teachers. Instead, a more thorough reading of each case reveals there’s likely to be enormous variability in the way COVID-19 disease spreads within educational facilities, depending on any number of physical, social, and biological factors – factors we do not understand and therefore can’t predict with any degree of certainty. 

As Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told members of Congress, “We don’t really know, exactly, what the efficiency of spread is” among children. 

Public school stakeholders need to be aware of the pitfalls associated with these studies as they draw conclusions from the COVID-19 information supplied by NCDHHS. Policy decisions affecting the health and well-being of school children should not be based on flawed reasoning and studies that don’t accurately model the current patterns of infection in this rapidly evolving crisis.

Nan Fulcher earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina, specializing in infectious disease research. She’s involved in science and outdoor education programming for children and does freelance graphic design.

North Carolina’s schools deserve a superintendent who will fight for them

*note: this piece originally ran on Cardinal & Pine

Recently State Auditor Beth Wood released another damning Department of Public Instruction audit, detailing errors involving tens of millions in taxpayer dollars.  It barely made the news.  

It’s a sign of how utterly low Superintendent Mark Johnson has dropped the bar as his tenure atop North Carolina K-12 education nears its end.

Elected in 2016 as the first Republican superintendent in a century, Johnson has lurched from scandal to scandal.  The sweetheart deal for Apple iPads, thousands of which were found to be collecting dust in DPI storage a year later.  The shady Istation contract award.  The short-lived, campaign-driven Common Core hate.  And more.  So much more.

But as a veteran classroom teacher who constantly struggles to do his job effectively with insufficient state resources from a legislature that seems bent on sabotaging public schools, I’d say the worst part of Mark Johnson’s superintendency has been his complete lack of backbone with the General Assembly.

Johnson was elected well into a decade where a veto-proof Republican supermajority has taken a veritable wrecking ball to public education, passing a jaw-dropping succession of laws which make it harder for North Carolina’s schools to attract and retain excellent teachers and provide the education that our students deserve.

Those laws include, among others:

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, it would have been extremely helpful to have someone leading public schools who was willing to speak truth to power.  Not only has Mark Johnson failed to do that, he’s often served as an ad hoc spokesman for the General Assembly’s appalling education policy, famously referring to North Carolina’s $35,000 starting teacher salary as “good money,” for example.    

As superintendent, Mark Johnson has also worked to undermine efforts by education advocates, speaking out against protests by thousands of pro-public school individuals in March of 2018 and again in 2019.

Mark Johnson needs to be replaced with a state superintendent who is willing to support educators and to call out bad policy.  That’s why recent remarks made by Republican candidate for superintendent Catherine Truitt raised such huge red flags for me.

Responding to a question about how she would work with state lawmakers, Truitt took her Democratic opponent Jennifer Mangrum to task for assigning the General Assembly an F for its education policy:

During a candidate forum this winter, all seven state superintendent candidates were asked to grade North Carolina’s public schools. Our answers ranged from “A” to “C”. My opponent decided to add, “but I would give legislators an F.”  This comment is insulting to legislators of both parties who take on an incredible amount of work on behalf of us all for a stipend of around $13,000 per year, and it damages her credibility with these folks. Regardless of whether one feels there is truth in her statement, this type of public admonishment is not appropriate, nor does it indicate an ability to work across the aisle and build trust. 

When elected, I pledge to work with legislators from both sides of the aisle, and to work with the governor and his designees regardless of what political party they are from. And this work will be characterized by respect and the understanding that we must always ask the question, “is this what’s best for students?” 

I am also confident legislators from either party, a governor from either party, and State Board of Education members from either party, will be willing to work with me because they know I respect them, I respect their opinions and perspective, that I will always be honest with them, and, unlike others, I have not and will not ever personally attack them or their character. 

Being a vocal advocate for the needs of public schools doesn’t constitute personal attacks–it’s a basic element of the job description of state superintendent.  It’s what North Carolina’s educators and students desperately need.  

This is not the first time Catherine Truitt has played the “Be Nice” card in defense of Republican education policy.  

In 2016, when Truitt served as Governor Pat McCrory’s Senior Education Advisor, dozens of teachers marched 23 miles to the governor’s office to call attention to the needs of public schools.  14 of them were arrested.

In an opinion piece for the News & Observer, Truitt delivered something that sounded remarkably like the public admonishment she lectured Mangrum about last week, referring dismissively to the educators’ actions as a “publicity stunt” and saying they weren’t interested in “constructive dialogue.”  She vigorously defended Governor McCrory’s record on education before advising the teachers to do more to “set a positive example for [their] students.”

Just to be sure we’re clear, Catherine Truitt appears to think it’s fine to admonish those who speak up on behalf of public schools, but it’s disrespectful to find fault with Republican education policy.

Public schools are at a critical moment, with a deadly, school-closing pandemic still sweeping the country and a general election with huge consequences for education at both the national and state levels rapidly approaching.  

Now more than ever it’s incredibly important that we are able to make an unflinching assessment of what K-12 education’s needs are, what policies and practices have led us to this point, and exactly what actions we must take to get it right for our students and teachers.

Mark Johnson’s election was the mistake of the century.  

Let’s not repeat it.

Charlotte teacher with COVID-19 shares concerns over re-opening schools

My colleague Michelle Vail has been teaching with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools for 17 years and is an 8th grade science teacher as well as Athletic Director at Waddell Language Academy.

She’s currently battling COVID-19 which she contracted about a month ago.

Earlier this week Ms. Vail reached out to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education about her experience in hopes that it would inform the board’s decision making process on a potential school reopening in August.

I share that communication below with her permission:

I know that a board meeting is being held this evening regarding the opening of schools so I wanted to take a moment to share my concerns as an educator who has had COVID since June 1st. Please forgive that this is a little long and wordy but I have a lot to say.

First, I did everything right, just as we were being advised. I only went out for necessities. I wore a mask and gloves, socially distanced from others, washed my hands, and/or used hand sanitizer when necessary. However, in the last week of May I received some news that a friend of mine that I have known for 30+ years, parents were in a tragic car accident. Her mother has Alzheimer’s and her father was the primary caregiver. Unfortunately, he did not survive. I came to Ohio to help.

On June 1, we picked her mother up from the hospital. They scanned our foreheads as we entered fully protected and we waited in a secure area isolated. Three days later we discover they sent her home with COVID-19! In a matter of days, this virus took down a household of 5! Every single one of us exhibited different symptoms and only 2 of the 5 started with a fever. I had that terrible whooping cough, sore throat, and extreme weakness. The weakness was so bad that I could not wash my hair without taking a break because I was out of breath raising my arms over my head. The symptoms seemed to vary across the board, so if scanning staff/students/parents’ foreheads for fever is a proposed option for schools to open, it’s not a good one.

Three of the five have now tested negative for COVID. One was just tested today because he was the last to get it; he got it from us. Today he and I lost the nasal congestion we had been having but we also completely lost our sense of smell?! That goes along with our lack of taste. Unfortunately, I have had two positive tests, so I am still in isolation in Ohio. They have also been advised to quarantine with me. I also have a compromised immune system so that could be slowing down the process. Both Mecklenburg and Ohio Health Departments have contacted me and I asked ODH if I needed to isolate from the others in the house if they have already had it and he said there were a lot of variables because they know so little about this virus. However, since it was all within a month he “assumed” it should be okay, but they should self-quarantine and use extra precaution when going out. They just don’t know how long the antibodies will last. With Chicken Pox, they last a lifetime, with Mono six months, COVID??


Personally, I don’t feel safe going back into a building. I take care of my 79-year-old father. If I bring this home to him, I would kill him. I don’t know that I would survive if I were to get this a second time. Might I also point out that many staff members and parents would fall into the critical age range for COVID-19? Students may not be getting ill with COVID, but they could transmit the virus to others.

Has anyone thought about what this would look like in person? Students would not be able to hear the teacher through the mask if they are in the middle or back of the classroom and vice versa. Are we going to be provided headphones with mics? Will teachers be provided face shields and other personal protective gear so they can get closer to the students to answer questions and provide individualized instruction? Will the cafeterias, classrooms, hallways, libraries, and other common areas be marked for social distancing? Who will be expected to be monitoring this? Will classroom doors be expected to be closed and locked at all times? If so, will teachers be provided with wipes to clean the door handles? They will also need wipes for the light switches? How will restroom breaks expect to be managed at the elementary and middle school level? Will the water fountains be blocked off? Will there be sports? How will social distance and safety be maintained? Again, who will be expected to monitor this? Who will clean the equipment? What about PE/PE Equipment? Who will clean the playground equipment for elementary school? Will staff be provided with gloves for every time they have to open an interior/exterior door? These are just some of the questions that I have.

If you go with the 50% model, will teachers be recording the lessons that they do in person with the class? If so, will the equipment be provided or will we be expected to create something completely different? It would be extremely difficult to get through the entire curriculum with the 50% model and pass an EOG/EOC?

I wanted you to have some first-hand information from someone who WILL be on that frontline. I love what I do and I really did miss my students. I missed them terribly, so much that I would sacrifice seeing them in person to protect them and their families by doing remote learning. Remote learning was NOT a walk in the park! I know that myself and many of my colleagues were working much harder and longer hours than before. I had meetings with students for help as late as 8:30 PM! I never felt so exhausted before and I might have only walked 1200 steps the entire day!

I appreciate your time reading my message and hope that you take my thoughts and concerns into consideration.

Sincerely,

Ms. Michelle Vail
8th Grade Science Teacher
Athletic Director
E. E. Waddell Language Academy

Even in the midst of a pandemic, legislators’ priorities on Leandro are key

note: this piece was originally published by Cardinal & Pine

As North Carolina enters the fifth month of the COVID-19 outbreak, much talk has been made about a looming economic catastrophe of undetermined proportions.  But pandemics don’t relieve state lawmakers of their constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education.”  If our legislators disagree, they need to be replaced.

Background:

In 1994 a lawsuit was brought against the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Education by plaintiffs from five economically distressed counties (Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance).  

The suit alleged that the state was not providing an equal opportunity to a high quality education and was thus failing to meet its obligation under the North Carolina Constitution, which holds:

“The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” (Article I, Section 15)

“The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” (Article IX, Section 2)

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that those sections of the North Carolina Constitution “guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.”  

In its landmark decision, the court defined a sound basic education as one that provides students with sufficient understanding of academic content to “enable the student to function in a complex and rapidly changing society,” and to “make informed choices with regard to issues that affect the student personally or affect the student’s community, state, and nation.”  

The court said that education must also equip students with the skills they need in order to “successfully engage in post-secondary education or vocational training” and “compete on an equal basis with others in further formal education or gainful employment in contemporary society.”

In 2002, a lower court found the state of North Carolina to be in violation of students’ right to a sound basic education.  

The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that decision in 2004 and ordered the state to remedy its failure by providing the following:

*That every classroom be staffed with a competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of student by implementing effective educational methods that provide differentiated, individualized instruction, assessment and remediation to the students in that classroom.  

*That every school be led by a well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and the ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers who can implement an effective and cost effective instructional program that meets the needs of at-risk children so that they can have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education by achieving grade level or above academic performance.  

*That every school be provided, in the most cost effective manner, the resources necessary to support the effective instructional program within that school so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, to have the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, can be met.”

In ensuing years, very little progress was made in improving education funding or successfully addressing poor education outcomes.  

Then in 2018, the judge tasked with monitoring the state’s implementation of the Leandro decision appointed consulting agency WestEd to conduct a detailed review of North Carolina’s education system and offer recommendations.  

WestEd’s comprehensive report was released to the public in December 2019.  It states that North Carolina is even further from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education now than it was when the Supreme Court’s decision was originally issued more than two decades ago.  

It further notes that “the future prosperity and well-being of the state’s citizens requires successfully educating all of its children…North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the education needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state.”

The WestEd report provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that North Carolina is meeting the educational needs of its students.  

It identifies eight “critical need” areas:

1.  Revise the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient, and equitable resources.

2.  Provide a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school.

3.  Provide a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.

4.  Provide all at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood programs.

5.  Direct resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.

6.  Revise the student assessment system and school accountability system.

7.  Build an effective regional and statewide system of support for the improvement of “low-performing” schools.

8.  Convene an expert panel to assist the Court in monitoring state policies, plans, programs, and progress.

The report lays out specific policy recommendations on how the state can meet the eight critical needs.  Many of the policies recommended by WestEd would require the state to provide additional resources, which would obviously come with a price tag.

General Assembly leadership unmoved by Leandro mandate:

As soon as the WestEd report became public, Republican leaders in both the North Carolina House and Senate began complaining about not being involved in WestEd’s work.  

A spokeswoman for longtime Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the state had made “incredible strides in education” since the GOP took over in 2011 and added “It is impossible to get a comprehensive look at education funding and policy in the state without talking directly to the people who create the laws and allocate the money.  It seems to me that it’s awfully difficult to credibly analyze policy choices without ever speaking to the people who made those choices.”

House Speaker Tim Moore’s spokesman also indicated findings would have been different had state legislators given input on the report.

This seems like a good time to mention that under the leadership of Berger and Moore, North Carolina’s state legislature has repeatedly cut taxes for individuals and corporations, primarily to the benefit of our state’s wealthiest shareholders and individuals.   According to North Carolina Budget and Tax Center data, as of the last round of rate reductions North Carolina has $3.6 billion less per year than it would have had otherwise.

Those massive tax cuts have taken away money that could have been spent on implementing WestEd’s policy recommendations.  They have made it far more difficult for North Carolina’s public schools to provide a sound basic education to all of our students.

Along with the COVID-driven economic climate, this depleted revenue has provided legislators who don’t necessarily care to see strong public schools with a convenient excuse for failing to act on WestEd’s recommendations.

In a May press conference, Senator Phil Berger responded to a question about adding education funding to meet the Leandro mandate by essentially saying the court couldn’t make the legislature pay:

“Our constitution does not provide for judges to appropriate dollars.  We’ve said on multiple occasions if judges want to get into the field of appropriating they need to run for the legislature.  We’ll see what the order is, but again we cannot spend money we don’t have.”

Senator Berger is right that the Leandro order lacks any power of enforcement.  A judge cannot allocate revenue from the general fund–it requires having a legislature that believes in following the law and wants to do the right thing for North Carolina’s children.  

But the fact that Republican leadership has methodically and intentionally diverted immense amounts of potential education funding into the pockets of corporations and wealthy individuals does not absolve this legislature of its constitutional obligations either.  

Action plan calls for changes this year:

In January 2020, parties to the Leandro case (both plaintiffs and defendants) set about putting together Phase 1 of an 8 year action plan as required by Judge David Lee.  

The Fiscal Year 2021 Action Plan was submitted to the court this month.

The plan acknowledges the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on North Carolina’s economy.  It notes that when parties began working on the plan, North Carolina had its lowest unemployment in a decade and a healthy budget surplus and now we are facing a forecasted $4.2 billion revenue shortfall.  

However, the action plan also states unequivocally “It is vital that the state does not reduce funding commitments to K-12 public education and early childhood education and developmental supports.  The challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic must not result in the State falling further behind in its efforts to meet the constitutional standard for all children in North Carolina, particularly at-risk students.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the Leandro action plan recommends a variety of steps which are aligned with critical need areas identified in the WestEd report. 

In part, those steps include:

*Improving efforts to recruit diverse, well-prepared teachers through expansion of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program

*Specifically working to increase ethnic diversity of North Carolina’s teaching corps–our teachers are 80% white and serve students who are 52% students of color–and ensure “all teachers employ culturally responsive practices

*Providing more effective mentoring for beginning teachers

*Improving compensation with an average 5% raise for teachers and instructional support staff

*Increasing funding for whole child support (school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists)

*Expanding access to high-quality principal preparation programs

*Revising funding formulas so more resources are directed toward students with greatest need

*Developing capacity to support lowest-performing schools

*Increasing access to high-quality Pre-K

The estimated cost of taking the steps outlined in the FY 2020-21 Action Plan is $427 million above current funding levels.

If you don’t like the policy, change the policy makers:

I reached out to the offices of both Senator Berger and Speaker Moore to ask about the possibility of the General Assembly moving on the above recommendations in the next fiscal year.  Neither bothered to respond.

Public education’s needs are crystal clear.  The path forward has been meticulously delineated.  We have to stop kicking the can down the road and have the integrity to say that the time for action is now.

And if leaders in North Carolina’s state legislature continue to be negligent toward the Supreme Court’s decision and their constitutional obligations, we must work like hell to replace them in November with individuals who believe in adequately funding our schools so we can provide our students with the opportunities they deserve.

.

Proposed legislation would require NC DPI to develop “comprehensive firearm education course” for high school students

Proposed legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly would direct the Department of Public Instruction to develop a firearm education elective class for high school students.

The bill would require such courses to be developed in collaboration with “law enforcement agencies and firearms associations.” The classes would not permit the use of live ammunition:

The State Board of Education, in consultation with law enforcement agencies and firearms associations, shall develop a comprehensive firearm education course that can be offered as an elective at the high school level to facilitate the learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) principles. The firearm safety course shall include history, mathematics, and firearms functions and applications. Firearm safety shall be a key component of the course of study. The course shall rely on input from law enforcement agencies and firearms associations as well as related scientific engineering and design-related educational sources. The course of instruction shall not permit the use or presence of live ammunition. The course shall be conducted under the supervision of an adult who has been approved by the school principal in accordance with G.S. 14-269.2(g)(1).”

The proposed committee substitute gutted an old bill filed by Senator Jeff Jackson in early 2019 which clarified conditions of pretrial release. The new version is renamed “2nd Amendment Protection Act” and in addition to mandating the firearm education class would also relax various concealed carry laws and restore rights of convicted felons to possess firearms under certain conditions.

You can see the proposed bill in its entirety below:

SB-156-PCS

Pressure mounts to change name of Halifax County school named for slave owner, honor Black HBCU champion instead

Co authored by Rodney D. Pierce and Justin Parmenter

A movement is afoot in Halifax County–birthplace of the Leandro lawsuit and one of North Carolina’s most economically distressed counties–to change the name of William R Davie Middle STEM Academy.  An overwhelming 93 percent of the school’s population are students of color (77% Black, 10% Indigenous/American Indian, 4% Multi-racial, 2% Hispanic). 

A petition started by 2019 North Carolina Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year and Halifax County native Rodney D. Pierce requests that the Halifax County Schools Board of Education change the name to that of county native Dr. James E. Cheek Sr.  The petition currently has over 1300 signatures.

William R. Davie is considered to be one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  He served as Governor of North Carolina and helped found the University of North Carolina. 

According to census documents, Davie also enslaved Africans to work his plantations and increase his personal wealth.  The 1790 United States census shows Davie owning 36 slaves:

The 1820 census recorded Davie–then living in Chester County, South Carolina–as owning 116 slaves to operate his cotton plantation:

In addition to enslaving Black people, Davie consistently fought to strengthen the institution of chattel slavery in the United States.  In 1787 he threatened a Southern delegation walkout at the Constitutional Convention, insisting that “the business of the convention was at an end” if the enslaved were not counted as part of state populations. His insistence laid the groundwork for the Three-Fifths Clause of the original US Constitution that counted human property as 3/5s of a human being, allowing the slaveholding South more representation in the US House of Representatives. 

Without this influence, historians have cited that important pro-slavery and anti-Indigenous legislation wouldn’t have passed, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (allowed Missouri to join the Union as a slave state), the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (the forced displacement and genocide of tens of thousands of Indigenous people on the Trail of Tears to land west of the Mississippi River), the Compromise of 1850 (included the Fugitive Slave Act that required citizens and officials of free states to return all enslaved freedom seekers to owners upon capture and allowing slavery in Utah, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia), the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 (created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska while opening the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain territory to slavery). 

Founding Father James Madison, himself a slave owner, came up with the idea of the Electoral College based off of the Three-Fifths Compromise. Instead of “direct election” — what we’d call the popular vote — which Madison actually thought was best, he created a system where presidential electors based on the number of members of Congress a state had would decide the Presidency, which gave the South a significant advantage for decades. So, Davie had a role in establishing the controversial system of electing the president which persists to this day. 

In 1794, during his time in the state legislature, Davie introduced a bill entitled “An Act to prevent the owners of slaves from hiring to them their time, to make compensation to patrols, and to restrain the abuses committed by free negroes and mulattoes.” This legislation permitted patrollers to “inflict a punishment, not exceeding fifteen lashes, on all slaves they may find off their owner’s plantation, or travelling on the Sabbath, or other unreasonable time, without a proper permit or pass.” At Davie’s hands, not only would the enslaved in NC not be able to earn money when they had free time, but they would be whipped if found at any time without proper identification. 

Despite his reprehensible history, Davie’s name adorns a school where the majority of the people who pass through it daily – whether students, employees, parents, etc. – would not have been recognized by him as fellow human beings. 

It may have made sense to name the school after Davie when it was dedicated in 1941 and all those who passed through it were White. That was nearly 80 years ago. 

Pierce and the other signers of the change the name petition are calling on the HCS school board to rename William R Davie Middle STEM Academy for Dr. Cheek. 

Born in Roanoke Rapids, Cheek served as president of Howard University for 20 years (1969-1989), transforming the HBCU into “The Black Harvard.” Afterwards, he served as president emeritus.

The petition states “A passionate advocate for HBCUs, Cheek befriended Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, becoming an advisor to each on Black institutions of higher learning. In 1980, Cheek was named Washingtonian of the Year and in 1983, President Reagan bestowed upon him the nation’s highest civilian honor:  The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The name of a prominent Black educator, who was a titan in Black higher education, is better suited to a building where predominantly Black children learn and Black adults work than the name of a slave-owning White supremacist who exploited Black people for wealth and political power.” 

Dr. Cheek’s family has given their blessing to the change.

If you’d like to sign the petition to change the name of William R Davie Middle STEM Academy you can find it here.

Email addresses for the Halifax County Board of Education are here.