Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The Salisbury Post on the coronavirus pandemic:
One year ago today, the headline in the Salisbury Post stated in bold letters, “Infections climb in South Korea as world fights virus.”
The story, written by the Associated Press, appeared on page 8A and reported the country had seen a total of 433 cases and three deaths. Globally, there had been nearly 78,000 people infected and 2,300 deaths. In Rowan County, it was a far-away problem affecting people elsewhere — likely not even on the minds of most Rowan Countians.
News on the front page of the newspaper that day: a story about about then-Senate Leader Mitch McConnell helping out a Democrat in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, a feature about recreation centers named for prominent Black Salisburians, news that local scouting organizations wouldn’t be affected by the national organization’s bankruptcy and a report about high school students converging on the fairgrounds for a trade skill event.
Inside, Sen. Bernie Sanders had just won the Nevada caucuses and was leading the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, candidates running for state legislative seats talked about rural internet, commissioners candidates in the Republican primary talked about West End Plaza’s future, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College officials talked about a bond proposal and a story previewed discussions by the school board about renewal plans.
Across the country, communities like Salisbury and Rowan County likely will begin to mark the grim one-year anniversary of the pandemic by when the first case appeared. The United States has already passed that mark. Rowan County is about one month away.
No matter the anniversary, one thing is clear: the pandemic has been worse than just about anyone could have reasonably predicted at the start. Restrictions have been in place longer and economic and health-related effects have been longer-lasting.
In April, The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a forecast model used by the White House, predicted more than 2,500 deaths by August. That prediction was high — the actual number recorded was closer to 2,000. But for people still learning about a new virus, even 2,000 deaths in North Carolina in just months seemed like a lot.
Today, the state has seen nearly 11,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 840,000 positives.
In Rowan County, there have been 14,613 positives, 269 deaths and hundreds of people hospitalized. Once numbers are finalized, COVID-19 is expected to be one of the leading causes of death here in 2020. Families have lost loved ones. Many of those who survived are still living with the effects of the virus. Whether the numbers were zero or 14,613 and 269, people taking precautions have been ridiculed. People spun conspiracy theories as professionals tried to understand a new, rapidly spreading virus.
With the community approaching the one-year anniversary of the first case being publicly identified (March 19) and the first death (March 27), it’s worth reflecting on the events of the previous year and whether the community’s collective behavior accelerated the spread or helped slow it down.
Even as things improve, it’s critical to follow commonsense precautions like wearing a mask, waiting 6 feet apart, avoiding large crowds and washing your hands. Taking basic precautions is not incompatible with considering whether it’s time to change or lift some virus-related restrictions. Ignoring easy measures or continuing with the fantasy that the virus isn’t dangerous, however, is incompatible with a happy and healthy community.
The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer on lawmakers' focus on those struggling during the pandemic:
For years, and especially this past year, North Carolina Republicans have been patting each other on the back for their stewardship of North Carolina’s robust Rainy Day Fund. The latest self-congratulation came last week, as Union County Rep. Dean Arp penned an op-ed in the Carolina Journal lauding how the fund has benefited from Republican-led tax reform and spending restraint. “As a result,” Arp wrote, “we can help people when they really need it.”
A quick heads up, Republicans: People really need it. In the almost-year since COVID ravaged our state, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians have lost their jobs. Businesses — including the small businesses that are the lifeblood of communities — have struggled or shut down.
But while Republicans continue to crow about the Rainy Day fund they’ve built, they’ve not used it for the downpour outside their windows. No dollars from the fund have been allocated to COVID assistance, according to Pat Ryan, spokesperson for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger. (Republicans have allocated $1.4 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for natural disasters over the past five years, Ryan told the Editorial Board.)
To make things worse, North Carolinians who lose their job have faced some of the stingiest benefits in the country. Our state lags behind most in the size of weekly benefits, and in 2013, the state cut the maximum number of unemployment benefit weeks from the nationwide standard of 26 to a range of 12 to 20 depending on the unemployment rate.
At least some lawmakers, however, have found a way to help folks truly in need: themselves.
A group of N.C. House members wants to increase the amount they receive for spending time in Raleigh, according to NC Insider’s Colin Campbell. House Bill 122 would increase per diem travel and mileage reimbursements for state employees and legislators — with the increase for lawmakers not taking place until 2023. The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, Gale Adcock, D-Wake, Robert Reives, D-Chatham, and Julia Howard, R-Davie.
Both Democrats and Republicans should know it’s a bad look to find extra dollars for your own pockets while others are so desperately in need. The optics for Republicans are particularly galling, given how little they’ve tried these past months to help those suffering financially from COVID.
Instead, the struggling are getting hit with a different bill, drafted by Republican legislators last week, that would reinstate requirements that jobless people actively seek work in order to receive unemployment benefits. As the News & Observer’s Sophie Kasakove reports, Gov. Roy Cooper authorized the Department of Commerce, which houses the state unemployment agency, to waive these requirements last March.
Cooper, through a spokesperson, expressed concern about denying benefits to individuals who might have difficulties or hesitation searching for work because of COVID-19. Pryor Gibson, the assistant secretary of Commerce for Employment Security, told legislators that he questioned whether reinstating work search requirements right now would be worth “the pain and suffering that it’s going to create for folks that are already struggling with the system.”
An additional issue: Although the bill exempts people out of work for COVID-19-related reasons, Gibson expressed worry about separating COVID from non-COVID job losses, as well as communicating the distinction in a clear way to the affected. He’s right. COVID job losses have an impact on the whole N.C. economy, including jobs that might be lost indirectly.
Republicans should back off the work requirement reinstatement for now. They also could dip more into the $2.59 billion in unemployment reserves to help those whose benefits are insufficient or have run out in this challenging job market.
Lawmakers also should aggressively pursue COVID assistance that frankly should have come many months ago. Instead of making lives more difficult, they should help the people they’re supposed to serve. That would be something to crow about.
The Greensboro Record & News on school reopenings:
One of the oddest aspects of the debate over school reopening in North Carolina is that everybody wants the same thing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone — parent, student or teacher — who doesn’t prefer in-person instruction to remote learning.
Just ask and they’ll tell you:
Teaching remotely is harder. The hours are longer and the frustrations deeper.
It’s more difficult to engage students and definitely tougher to keep track of them.
Class plans have to be adapted, sometimes radically. What came naturally in the classroom doesn’t always easily translate to Zoom.
And making sure that at-risk students don’t lose touch and interest is hard enough in person. Try keeping those struggling students motivated and engaged through a computer screen.
The results bear out those concerns. In Guilford County, more and more students are falling behind and more are failing.
So, by all means, getting students back into their classrooms should be an urgent goal.
But not at the expense of safety.
That’s where Gov. Roy Cooper and the legislature have reached an impasse.
The governor said last week that he was not willing to sign a bipartisan bill passed by the General Assembly that forces some type of in-person learning in all public school systems.
The main concern the governor expressed was that the bill does not follow state Department of Health and Human Services safety guidelines.
For instance, the bill requires masks but not social distancing for middle and high school students, which the DHHS guidelines prescribe.
Grocery stores and workplaces require social distancing, but not classrooms? There’s no reason for lawmakers not to fix that.
There’s also no reason for them not to put their wallets where their rhetoric is.
This bill amounts to yet another unfunded mandate for schools, with no resources attached to ensure safer reopenings.
Social distancing requires physical space, which isn’t readily available in many school buildings, especially older ones.
Social distancing also affects transportation to and from school. It will very likely call for more school buses and bus drivers. Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras has already noted a shortage of school bus drivers with only K-5 students attending school in person.
There are other concerns and potential costs for ventilation, testing and reconfiguring of cafeterias to allow for proper spacing.
The bill’s proponents cite a CDC report that promotes reopening schools.
But they tend to focus on this part: “Opening schools for in-person learning as safely and quickly as possible, and keeping them open, is important given the many known and established benefits of in-person learning.”
And not this part:
“In order to enable in-person learning and assist schools with their day-to-day operations, it is important to adopt and diligently implement actions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 inside the school and out in the community.”
Among the CDC’s recommendations are upgrades, where needed, to ventilation and air filtration systems, possibly including “ultraviolet germicidal irradiation,” which, the agency admits, will incur costs.
One need, thankfully, is about to be addressed. North Carolina schoolteachers and staff will be eligible for COVID vaccinations beginning Feb. 24.
It isn’t as if the state can’t afford to help pay for the costs of a safer reopening with $5 billion sitting in its rainy fund.
We also learned this week that the state collected $4.1 billion more in tax revenue in 2020 than projected. That’s billion with a “b.”
Also, the bill provides no flexibility for local communities. If an emergency arises, districts cannot deviate from the bill’s mandates without a new law from Raleigh.
Of course, all of this may soon become moot. Cooper said in a news conference on Thursday that 95 of the state’s 115 school systems already plan to resume in-person classes by mid-March.
In Guilford County, middle and high school students are scheduled to return to in-person classes in phases. Sixth and ninth graders were to return next week; seventh, 10th and 12th graders, the week of March 1. Eighth and 11th graders would return the week of March 8.
In any event, schools and teachers could use more resources and support from the state to ensure student and teacher safety.
If lawmakers are truly serious about reopening schools and are not simply trying to score political points, it’s time for them to put up or shut up.
If this bill is more than for show, then show us the money.