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Basic steps can protect education, state coffers during COVID-19 outbreak, experts say

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Second of two parts

As North Carolina fights the coronavirus, the General Assembly should take a few simple, smart steps to keep public education on track and the economy afloat, experts say.

On March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Days later, he closed schools for at least two weeks, then stretched the closure to May 15. At the same time, the state’s economy slumped under the weight of COVID-19 as restaurants and bars closed dining rooms and gyms, salons, and other non-essential businesses shut their doors to comply with executive orders.

With the federal government supplying a $2-trillion relief package to patch the nation’s injured economy, it’s time for the state legislature to protect its savings and prepare for a recession, said Joe Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal and tax policy at the John Locke Foundation. At the same time, lawmakers must act to prevent students from lagging in public school, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at JLF. 

These are their recommendations:


Recommendation: Allow school districts calendar flexibility  

Why: To make up time or restructure attendance requirements.   

State law requires schools to wrap classes and testing by June 30. That’s not going to be easy now that all schools are physically closed until at least May 15, Stoops said.  

North Carolina law grants emergency powers to the State Board of Education, allowing it to extend recesses and adjournment of public schools. But it’s unclear how that would be reconciled with classroom time requirements and the June 30 deadline.  

“As many pundits point out, we are in uncharted territory,” Stoops said.  

The General Assembly should provide a uniform policy response to COVID-19 closures, he said.  

Two options are on the table. Lawmakers could waive the June 30 deadline, or they could reduce the number of hours students are supposed to complete in a school year.  

It’s likely any decisions about the school calendar this year will lead to modifications of the calendar for the next school year, particularly if the state mandates that students attend summer school or start the next school year early, Stoops said.  

“In the long run, the ideal option is to dispense with the unnecessarily prescriptive start and end date requirements altogether and allow school districts to formulate calendars that better meet the needs of students, families, and communities.” 

Recommendation: Grant school employees additional leave days 

Why: To avoid penalizing teachers who used leave for medical treatment, child care, or any other need in the wake of COVID-19 

North Carolina teachers earn 0.2 days of personal leave for each month they work; they can’t earn more than 2 days a year.  

During the coronavirus outbreak, teachers should be allowed to earn more, Stoops said.  

“Lawmakers should consider granting additional leave days to school personnel by retroactively increasing the personal leave rate for the current school year,” he said.  “Moreover, they should work with state education officials to ensure that all public school employees have clear guidelines on key human resources issues, such as compensation, leave and sick days, and documenting work hours during school closure.” 

Recommendation: Increase communication about child nutrition options  

Why: To provide food for low-income and rural communities  

Closed schools mean closed lunchrooms for low-income families who depend on school lunches to feed their children. All 115 North Carolina school districts stepped up with plans to provide meals for their communities.  

About 1,165 schools had served 1.2 million meals and 6,500 snacks as of March 21.  

Meal service is optional, and there are no rules for how a district should distribute food, said Stoops.  

The biggest challenge is communication, he said.   

“School districts should use telephone, email, and broadcast communications to disseminate information about the availability of meals over the school closure period.”    

Recommendation: Use online learning as a tool, and encourage parents of school kids to read at home

Why: Help K-12 students stay on track with learning even as public schools remain closed until at least May 15. 

With schools closed, online learning may seem inevitable, Stoops said. But lawmakers shouldn’t mandate digital education for districts unless leaders can satisfy four concerns.  

First, technology sets a barrier for kids in rural and low-income neighborhoods where the internet is patchy. Private companies like Charter Communications and Comcast are offering free broadband and WiFi access for families with school children. But some areas of North Carolina, such as the Inner Banks, Sandhills, and western regions of the state, don’t have the infrastructure to support high-quality broadband.  

Timing is another obstacle teachers must overcome, Stoops said. Cooper announced the school shutdown on a Saturday, giving classrooms little time to respond. Schools that already used online learning tools were prepared. But those with fewer internet options didn’t have a chance to print and distribute hardcopy learning packets.  

Classroom teachers also must be taught how to plan for online lessons, Stoops said, as even the most skilled must adapt in-person activities to work at a distance.  

The fourth barrier is special education law, Stoops said. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act give rights to students who receive services for a documented disability. That includes special education programs at school.

If districts run school online for general students during the closure, they are legally required to make sure students with disabilities get the same opportunities, the law says. Schools also are required to continue providing special education. 

While the state winds its way past these obstacles, parents can read with their children and encourage learning at home, he said.  

“Parents who do not have access to online texts may obtain books from libraries or request books from their child’s school.” 

State budget and fiscal issues 

Recommendation: Don’t raise taxes and safeguard unreserved money  

Why: To prepare for economic hardship in the wake of COVID-19 

No one knows what will come next in the fight against coronavirus, but one thing is certain. The economy will take a big hit 

North Carolina should “keep its powder dry” and sit tight on the roughly $3.5 billion it holds in available cash, Coletti said.   

Last year’s clash between Cooper and the General Assembly over Medicaid expansion cemented the failure of a new state budget. But it also left the state with $2.26 billion in unreserved cash, Coletti said.  

In mid-March, Coletti would’ve recommended allocating some of that money for short-term relief. Now, he advises the legislature hold its collective horses.  

Tax revenue is already falling after the federal and state governments extended tax filing deadlines into July, Coletti said. Thousands of North Carolina businesses are closing under executive orders from Cooper. Tens of thousands of unemployed workers are filing for unemployment.

“Who knows what’s going to be left of that $2.26 billion as this progresses?” Coletti asked 

It’s more important than ever for the state to protect its savings and prepare for hard economic times, Coletti said, so that struggling taxpayers don’t face an even greater burden once the coronavirus pandemic abates. 

Lawmakers shouldn’t burden residents with a sales tax increase — a tactic used in the past, Coletti said. During the past two recessions, Democratic majorities in the legislature raised sales taxes to boost revenue. In 2001, former Gov. Mike Easley and the General Assembly raised the sales tax half a cent while diverting state pension payments to stretch the budget. They renewed the hike in 2003 and 2005, letting it drop partially before making it permanent in 2007. In 2009, former Gov. Bev Perdue — alongside the legislature — raised sales taxes 1 cent. When Republicans won the legislature in 2011, they let the tax hike expire, saving taxpayers $827 million the first year alone 

Taxpayers need every dollar now more than ever, Coletti said. As Congress pushes a $2trillion stimulus package to bolster the economy, North Carolina must be judicious about how it spends its money.  

“Regardless of what one thinks of the federal response, no amount of state money will have anywhere near the impact,” Coletti said. “Instead, Governor Cooper and the General Assembly should shore up state and local government finances while responding to the public health and economic challenges arising from the coronavirus outbreak.