February 26, 2021

Friends,
With our '21-22 General Assembly session ramping up, we are facing many challenges. In addition to developing the biennial budget, with the process beginning in the Senate this year, we are continuing to consider ways to respond to the many needs in our state from the impacts of COVID-19.  

Below are some very important updates, including the Governor’s announcement to relax some restrictions, vaccination updates, and the issues around how and when to reopen schools safely. In coming weeks, we will continue to provide you with information about these and other important issues, as well as reports on my community activities and events, and invitations to ones you may want to join.
“Dimmer Switch” Approach Relying on Science
Allows Governor to Ease Some Restrictions
In what NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen characterizes as a “dimmer switch approach,” a careful analysis of our state COVID-19 metrics continues to guide how restrictions are lifted—or not—as we navigate the nuances of the coronavirus and as the numbers of vaccinated people rise. It is essential that we remain vigilant as circumstances can easily change, and new orders designed to protect us are issued.

Governor Cooper issued a new Executive Order 195, which begins today, Friday, February 26 at 5:00 PM and will remain in effect through Friday, March 26. The lifting or modification of existing restrictions comes as a result of positive trends, including:

  • A decline in the number of positive cases, now at 6-7% (our goal is 5%)
  • A decline in the number of hospitalizations, now at the lowest levels since mid-November 2020

Notably, the 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM curfew will be lifted, and other restrictions modified to allow many businesses and facilities to serve more people.

The mandatory mask mandate remains unchanged. Please see the latest requirements below.

For additional details, please see:
 
COVID-19 Funding Update
Earlier this month, the Legislature unanimously passed 2020 COVID Relief Bill Modifications. The bill makes a number of important adjustments to previously enacted state COVID-19 relief. Additionally, it appropriates $2.2 billion in federal funds North Carolina received from the last federal COVID relief bill:

  • $1.6 billion for K-12 schools
  • $547 million for emergency rental assistance
  • $95 million for vaccine preparedness

Another COVID-19 relief bill is expected to be filed next week.


Governor Cooper has also proposed an emergency budget supplement, recommending that the more than $4 billion in federal funds directed to our state by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 be appropriated by the General Assembly. It is up to the General Assembly to pass legislation to spend these dollars, and they must be spent on specific items. Further, the Governor recommended that $695 million from our state’s General Fund balance be used to address immediate COVID-19 needs, including:
 
  • Expansion of state unemployment benefits (increase maximum weeks from 12 to 26, increase weekly maximum benefit from $350 to $500)
  • Educator/school personnel bonuses (public K -12, Community Colleges, University System)
  • Extending the reach of broadband access across the state
  • Additional support for small businesses
  • Continuation of hazard pay for state employees on the COVID-19 frontline

Since North Carolina currently has more than $5 billion in unreserved cash in its General Fund. I believe we should be investing some of the funds to address the serious challenges that North Carolinians, our schools, and our businesses are facing.


Re-Opening Schools A Priority
I am very concerned that students may not be learning as effectively when instruction is online, and that they are missing academic and social-emotional benefits that come with full-time, classroom-based learning. Based on guidance from the CDC, Governor Cooper, NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis have called for a safe return to schools. The return is not a mandate; rather the Governor believes local school boards and administrators should determine what is best for each school district. And while I am happy to see that school and child care personnel have been bumped up in terms of their priority for getting a vaccine (registration is now open for this group), ongoing supply issues mean that not all will be vaccinated before schools return to in-person instruction.

Currently, school districts may offer Plan A (in-person education) only in elementary schools. Plan B (a combination of in-person and remote learning) may be used in middle and high schools, and Plan C (full-time remote learning) remains an option for all students.
 
The Senate filed SB 37 - In-Person Learning Choice for Familiesat the beginning of this month. After a great deal of back and forth between the chambers, a Conference Report version of the original bill passed on February 17. It requires school districts to provide for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, at the discretion of local boards of education:
 
  • Plan A and C options for students with Individualized Education (IEP) or 504 special education plans
  • Plans A or B or C for ALL other students in grades K-12

SB 37 has no requirement for social distancing in middle and high schools, which goes against current NCDHHS guidelines. It also removes the ability of state and local authorities to adjust school attendance plans in the event that COVID metrics rise to heightened levels calling for change. Furthermore, there is no additional funding allotted to assist schools, and public charter schools are not included. This week, the Governor wrote to House and Senate members indicating that he would sign the bill, if amended to address the need for 6-feet of social distancing and the protection of emergency decisions by state and local authorities. I voted against SB 37, as I believe that a better approach that addresses these concerns is the alternative bill I co-sponsored, HB 112 - A Safe Return for In-Person Learning. HB 112 calls for the return of students to school 21 days after the passage of the bill with the following provisions for the 2020-2021 school year:

  • Compliance with the February version of the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit for Plans A and B.
  • Instruction under Plan A or B to all elementary school students (grades K-5), including those with IEP or section 504 plans, with a governing board determining which plan (or both) is appropriate.
  • Instruction under Plan B for all middle and high school students (grades 6-12), including those with IEP or section 504 plans.
  • Authorizes the governing board to provide in-person instruction under Plan A, Plan B, or both Plans to grades 6-12 students if the Department of Health and Human Services issues guidance for those students to return to school under Plan A.
  • Requires inclusion of a Plan C option to be available to all students.
We have yet to provide funding to address the completely inadequate number of school nurses, psychologists, counselors, or social workers in our schools. Last year, I was the lead primary sponsor on two bills that would invest in our public health infrastructure and provide a healthier, safer school environment. Unfortunately, House majority leaders chose not to discuss these bills at all. I am working on filing these bills again, as the need to ensure healthy schools and address the mental health of students is critically important as we are still facing the serious impacts of the pandemic.

Will staff every school in each of North Carolina’s 115 school districts with a full-time, permanent school nurse.

Will establish a tiered system of support for students by increasing the number of school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists serving our public schools at the recommended ratios:

  • At least one school counselor for every 250 students
  • At least one school social worker for every 400 students
  • At least one school psychologist for every 700 students

I will provide more information in the next newsletter about HB 82 - Summer Learning Choice for NC Families, just passed by the House and sent to the Senate. The bill would provide for school districts to develop summer programs to assist students with areas of "learning loss."

What’s Happening in the
Wake County Public School System (WCPSS)?
WCPSS students began returning to in-person learning on a rotating schedule, on Monday, February 15th. Exempt from this decision are students already enrolled in the Virtual Academy. Special Education Regional Programs and Pre-K – Grade 3 students will attend school in person (Plan A). Grades 4 – 5 and middle and high school students will return to in-person learning in three-cohort rotations. In addition, the School Board voted to modify the spring calendar to maximize and balance the number of in-person days among the three cohorts. Additional calendar and schedule information is available on the WCPSS website.
 

Vaccine Update
While our state continues to have a vaccine supply that falls short of demand, the fact that we are administering such a high percentage of doses received has prompted the federal government to increase our supply by 20%. We currently receive ~150,000 first doses a week (with a new 20% increase from the federal government). As of this past Wednesday, 2,180,655 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered. This includes 99% of the total first doses that have arrived at NC providers.

I know many of you are either on a waiting list or are not yet in a group that is eligible for vaccination. I believe that greater predictability, increased supply, and enhancements to the state’s COVID Vaccine Management System position us to speed up the rate of vaccination. Learn more at the NCDHHS Dashboard.
Wake County Public Health Vaccination (WCPH) Update
Prior to February, Wake County’s vaccine allotment was disproportionately low compared to the relative size of our population versus that of other counties. I am happy to report that, with support from NCDHHS, WCPH has started to receive a greater proportion of vaccines. This week, WCPH received a vaccine allotment of 19,300 doses.
Wake County population: 1.1 million (133,864 are age 65+)
Size Estimates for groups 1, 2, 3:

  • Group 1: 50, 474 (excluding hospital workers)
  • Group 2: 133,441
  • Group 3: 282,581

Though we have a great deal of catching up to do to meet demand, it does appear that we are headed in the right direction, and we have the capacity to administer a greater volume of shots once we have more supply, thanks to 3 new mass vaccination sites (see below) and a total of 26 vaccine suppliers (up 6 from last week).

Who’s Currently Getting Vaccinated: Group 1 and Group 2; Group 3 (pre-K - 12 school & child care staff can make vaccine requests now)

Where WCPS is Vaccinating:
  • Outdoor Community Partnership Drive-thru Mass Vaccination Clinic (PNC Arena)
  • TWO Indoor Mass Vaccination Clinics - running 6 days a week
  • Wake County Public Health Center (10 Sunnybrook Rd.)
  • Wake County Commons Building (4011 Carya Drive)

  • Long-Term Care Strike Teams  - 4 locations
  • Community Outreach Clinics aimed at equitably vaccinating historically marginalized populations (appointments are through churches/organizations)


New Online Tool: Find My Vaccine Group
With so many moving parts, it can be a challenge to figure out when it’s your turn for a vaccine. A brand new tool, Find My Vaccine Group, walks you through a series of questions to determine your group, and you can optionally sign up to be notified when you are eligible for vaccination. This survey will not collect any private health information.
2021-22 Committee Appointments
I am honored to be serving a third term as North Carolina Representative for House District 49.

I received appointments to 5 committees, and I am particularly pleased to be reappointed to 4 committees – Education K-12, Education Appropriations, Health, and Election Law -- and I am also joining a 5th – Local Government-Land Use, Planning and Development.
Education K-12 and Education Appropriations. As many of you know, public education has always been my highest priority. The quality of our public schools determines the quality of North Carolina’s future. Education K-12 has already been busy hearing bills including HB 82. (more in the next newsletter). And the Education Appropriations Committee is meeting regularly to hear presentations from various education agencies and divisions in our state, including a report yesterday from the NC Community Colleges System and the NC Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. (Their presentations are accessible at the links.)
From the NC Community Colleges presentation
Health is at the top of everyone’s priority list these days. I will continue to advocate for policies that make high-quality health care affordable and accessible to all North Carolinians. We expect to begin considering bills at our meeting next week.

I am glad to be re-joining the Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee. Our Committee met for the first time Wednesday to hear from the NC Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson-Bell who submitted a report on the 2020 Election challenges and made recommendations for issues we might address in the Committee.
From the NC Board of Elections presentation
Land Use, Planning and Development. As North Carolina’s population continues to grow, it is important to keep a watchful, proactive eye on how we plan for, develop and use our land; we must balance economic gain with environmental consequences that will harm us in the long run.
Selected Sponsored Bills
Below are some of the important bills I've filed or co-sponsored.

Primary Sponsor
HB 109 - Create Pretrial Release Study Committee. – would create a committee of experts to study and make recommendations to create uniform statewide standards and procedures related to pretrial release for defendants.

HB 147 - Restore State Emp/Teacher Retiree Med Benefit. – would restore retiree medical benefit for teachers and State employees first earning contributory service after January 1, 2021.
 
Co-Sponsor
HB 5 - $15/Hour Min. Pay for Noncert. Sch. Employees. – would set a higher minimum wage for individuals in positions that do not require a professional educator’s license or certification (i.e. bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teacher assistants).

HB 8 - NC Adopt ERA. – would ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

HB 14 - Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC Funds. – would appropriate funds for the
construction of a new food bank facility in Wilmington.

HB 33 - Broaden Applicability of DV Statutes. – would broaden domestic violence statutes which currently refer to “persons of the opposite sex.”

HB 41 - Amend Lawful Age to Marry/18 Years of Age. – would amend the lawful age for marriage to 18 years or older.

HB 71 - Living Donor Protection Act. – would protect living donors from potential insurance discrimination, provide an income tax credit for unreimbursed medical expenses resulting from certain donations, and to provide paid leave to state employees and other state-supported personnel who serve as living organ donors.

HB 91 - Reduce Reg. To Help Children with Autism. – would reduce unnecessary regulatory constraints for applied behavior analysis used to treat children with autism.

HB 105 - Superseding Orders/Domestic Violence. – would clarify when subsequent court orders will supersede similar provisions in domestic violence protective orders.

HB 126 - Community College System Salary Increases. – would fund legislatively mandated 7% salary increases for local community college.

Community Meetings and Events
I was honored to be invited to serve as a panelist at three recent events.
Last week, I participated in the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s NC Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP) Alumni Event, where we discussed a range of topics—from the challenges COVID-19 has posed for school districts and possible legislative solutions to recruitment, retention, and increased diversity among our teachers and principals. Previously, I had participated in the Forum’s annual Eggs and Issues event. As part of the program, the Forum identified its top education issues for 2021 which also came up several times in the panel discussion. If you missed Eggs and Issues, you can watch the video
Wake Ed Partnership recently held its inaugural Capital Coffee Talk, hosted by President Keith Poston. My colleagues and I discussed critical topics, including education during the pandemic, the upcoming legislative session, and making progress on the Leandro decision.

If you missed the event, please click on the image on the right to view the video of this lively and important discussion.
I also joined Senator Wiley Nickel to speak (virtually) to members of the Sierra Club Capital Group and answer their questions about the most pressing environmental issues, with a look ahead to the new legislative session. Among many things, we discussed the NC Clean Energy Plan, water quality, and the need to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Not only does sound, science-based environmental law enhance overall quality of life; it is an economic driver that is the basis for a healthy and prosperous future for North Carolina. Link to the video.
I am so honored to have this opportunity to work on issues affecting you and our state. I hope you are staying safe and well.
As always, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or the
District 49 Legislative Assistant, Patty Williams, with your questions or concerns.
It is my privilege to serve the people of North Carolina!
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