May 15, 2020

Legislative Update

The House Education Select Committee Working Group on COVID-19, met Thursday May 14th to hear from education leaders on the school nutrition program, broadband internet access, and the reopening of the public schools

Rep. Ashton Clemmons chaired the committee.

Director Lynn Harvey, Director of School Nutrition Services at NC Department of Public Instruction, was the first presenter. She said the need for school nutrition is great in terms of North Carolina having a large food-insecure population (nearly 60 percent of the state’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch). According to Harvey, the primary goal of the state nutrition program is to meet student needs and ensure program sustainability.

Harvey spoke about the summer school service program, which allows flexibility in areas such as food delivery and pick up, and the fact that the program has received the waivers necessary for it to operate to better serve students. She added that 18 million meals have been served since March 16th at over 1,000 sites and more than 2,100 school buses have been utilized to deliver meals.  In addition, the program has enjoyed support and help from the North Carolina National Guard and from community and faith-based organizations. She said those who need to access the food program should text “Food NC” to 877-877 to get more information.

Director Harvey added that as food costs increase, additional funding for the summer will be needed, and that funds that allow school buses to remain in operation were essential to meeting demand for meals during the summer months.

According to Harvey, 77 percent of the program funding is from federal sources, but additional state funds are needed to get the program through August and beyond.

The next presentation was regarding broadband access. The presenter was Jeff Sural, Director of the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office.

Sural spoke about broadband challenges dealing with access and affordability as well as bandwidth concerns for families where multiple users are on devices

He said a “homework gap” exists and corresponds with socioeconomic data gathered from around the state. He stated that North Carolina is making good progress compared to other states and is working to identify those households without broadband access.

Rep. Kevin Corbin added that there are regions of the state without internet service; specifically, remote learning is challenging in the extreme western part of the state as well as parts of eastern North Carolina. Director Sural said that to fully connect the state with broadband access, additional funds are needed.

Finally, NCDPI officials spoke on the public health perspective on the reopening of schools. Dr. David Stegal, Dr. Beverly Emory, and Susan Gale Perry from NCDPI presented.

Dr. Stegal said a Schools Reopening Task Force is leaning on several other Covid-19 response workgroups, with their goal either to hear from stakeholders to make plans for the reopening of schools or to create contingency plans should reopening need to be reconsidered in the fall. Dr. Emory noted that the communication component was critical when information is shared with the public.

Ms. Perry stated that DHHS and education leaders were reviewing the following as they consider school re-opening:

  1. Social distancing (structural/physical space modifications, density limiting actions, and minimizing opportunities for sustained exposure)
  2. Cleaning and hygiene (routines and resource availability)
  3. Monitoring health of students and staff
  4. Protecting high-risk populations
  5. Educating students and staff

She said the working groups were trying to decide how to approach sports (football, fans), staggered schedules, logistics, and that they are still actively and carefully thinking through all options.

During the questioning period, Rep Clemmons asked about the timeline for a final decision on reopening. According to Dr. Emory, this decision will likely be driven by data (which she noted is moving into a positive direction). Dr. Emory added that NCDPI understands the urgency and recognizes that a solid plan must be finalized in the coming weeks so that schools can make critical decisions regarding preparation for re-opening.

Rep. Craig Horn asked about how EC and special needs populations would be kept safe. Dr. Emory said that experts in the working groups were addressing the concerns of medically fragile populations and that they were working on guidance for how to proceed.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore was concerned about the 20-day headcount and its effects on funding and allotments.  He asked what may be needed to address it to gather accurate headcount data. Dr. Emory added that the headcount situation was part of an emerging conversation.

As the meeting adjourned, Rep. Clemmons said the working group remains dedicated to finding solutions and offering support. The time for the next meeting has not yet been announced.

We will keep you informed as lawmakers meet and address K-12 education.

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