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Guilford schools to bring back middle, high school students full-time

GREENSBORO — For the first time in more than a year, Guilford County Schools will offer in-person instruction five days a week at all grade levels.

On April 19, middle and high school students who have been learning two days a week in person and three days a week remotely will return to a full week of in-person instruction for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

Secondary school students who have been learning remotely, and not participating in the hybrid learning, will remain in remote learning with their home schools or district virtual academies through the end of the year. Guilford County Schools is not accepting new requests for in-person learning, according to a news release from the district.

The surprise announcement came a few weeks after Superintendent Sharon Contreras said she thought it would be “very unlikely” for the district to expand in-person learning for these students this school year due to logistical challenges, although she promised then to keep looking at options to make it work.

Spokesman Janson Silvers said Wednesday the district is now confident it can provide a full week of instruction.

“We’ve got six weeks here where we are trying to do as much in-person learning as we can,” he said referring to the time from April 19 until the end of the school year.

According to Silvers, the district timed the reopening to make sure that employees who chose to be vaccinated when first given the opportunity in late February would be at least two weeks past their second COVID-19 shot.

In-person students still will likely have some days where they learn from home. The district has scheduled several days where middle or high school students would learn remotely to free up space in school buildings for SAT tests for eleventh-graders or for standardized tests for students who are typically learning remotely.

Also on April 19, the district will stop requiring students to attest to their health and have their temperature taken prior to entering school buildings. These changes are in keeping with updates to state health protocols, according to the district news release.

In its news release Wednesday, the district said the change to five days a week of classroom instruction for middle and high school students was made possible by new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to the news release, “with masking requirements in place, the CDC and the NCDHHS now say that schools can place students 3 feet apart when desks are facing in the same direction.”

Actually, the CDC did call for at least 3 feet of social distancing in elementary classrooms. And the agency said the same for middle and high schools in areas of low, moderate or substantial community transmission.

However, the agency also said in areas of high community transmission, middle and high school students should be 6 feet apart.

The CDC on Wednesday listed the community transmission rate in Guilford County as “high” on its data tracker.

In an email, Silvers said that the district is responding to the “somewhat contradictory” guidelines with more restrictive protocols for certain situations, like performing arts classes, for example.

He said 6 feet of teaching space will continue to be maintained at the front of classrooms. Also, if students are spaced less than 6 feet apart in a classroom they will not be able to eat lunch at the same time. Instead, he said, students will have to split the time, with half eating while their classmates wear masks and then alternating.

Silvers also wrote that district staff consulted with officials from the county health department as well as with the ABC Science Collaborative — a group of coronavirus experts from Duke University — prior to making the decision. He said that according to the local health department’s COVID-19 dashboard, Guilford County is currently at a 6.7% COVID-19 test positivity rate.

“If you look at the CDC’s revised indicator and thresholds for community transmission, that puts us in the ‘moderate’ category,” he wrote.

Based on the changes to the CDC’s guidance, Guilford County Schools also dropped its distancing requirements for elementary school students from 6 feet to 3 feet.

On Tuesday, the district brought back more than 400 elementary school students who had been on waiting lists for in-person learning, due to lack of space at their schools when the 6-foot rule was in place.

Now, there are more than 47,800 students from pre-K to 12th grade who are back in the classroom.

“Our goal has always been to educate the maximum number of students in person for the greatest amount of time possible while keeping students and staff healthy and safe,” Contreras said in the news release. “The success of our elementary schools and the smooth reentry of our middle and high school students have given us the confidence to move forward with this change, as we begin the long process of helping students recover some of the learning losses we’ve seen this year.”

Boat, snowmobile, camel: Vaccine reaches world's far corners

PORTLAND, Maine — After enduring 40-knot winds and freezing sea spray, jostled health care providers arrived wet and cold on two Maine islands in the North Atlantic late last month to conduct coronavirus vaccinations.

As they came ashore on Little Cranberry Island, population 65, residents danced with excitement.

“It’s a historic day for the island,” resident Kaitlyn Miller said.

Around the world, it is taking extra effort and ingenuity to ensure the vaccine gets to remote locations. That means shipping it by boat to islands, by snowmobile to Alaska villages and via complex waterways through the Amazon in Brazil. Before it’s over, drones, motorcycles, elephants, horses and camels will have been used to deliver it to the world’s far corners, said Robin Nandy, chief of immunization for UNICEF.

“This is unprecedented in that we’re trying to deliver a new vaccine to every country in the world in the same calendar year,” he said.

Although the vaccination rollout has been choppy in much of the world and some places are still waiting for their first doses, there’s an urgent push to inoculate people in hard-to-reach places that may not have had COVID-19 outbreaks but also may not be well equipped to deal with them if they do.

“It’s a race against the clock,” said Sharon Daley, medical director of the Maine Seacoast Mission, which is providing shots on seven islands off the Maine coast.

And though coronavirus vaccinations can present unique challenges, including adequate refrigeration, health care providers are fortunate to have an infrastructure in place through the systems they use to conduct childhood vaccinations for measles and other diseases, Nandy said.

In the rough and roadless terrain of southwestern Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. chartered planes and used snowmobiles this winter to deliver the vaccine to nearly four dozen villages spread out over an area the size of Oregon.

The vaccination effort there began in December, when temperatures still hovered around minus 20 or minus 30 Fahrenheit and workers had to ensure the vaccine didn’t freeze in the syringes’ needles. Despite the challenges, the health corporation delivered thousands of doses to 47 villages in a month. In one village, residents were anguished after COVID-19 killed one person and sickened two others, including the local health worker.

“People were just really desperate to get vaccinated there, and it was pretty emotional to just kind of be able to bring something to them, to protect them,” said Dr. Ellen Hodges, the health corporation’s chief of staff.

In India, workers recently trekked to the tiny village of Bahakajari, a village along the mighty Brahmaputra River in the remote northeastern state of Assam, to start vaccinating its nearly 9,000 residents.

The vaccines were first sent to the nearest town, Morigaon, before they were driven the final leg by car. People from on a nearby island were brought to the health center by boat, and women in bright sarees and men lined up to get vaccinated. By the end of the day, 67 had received a shot, with officials planning to vaccinate 800 more within the next three days.

In Brazil, remote Amazon communities presented a challenge that meant traveling for hours on small planes and boats. Like many remote locales, getting the vaccine to the villages was important because most jungle communities have only basic medical facilities that aren’t equipped to treat severe COVID-19 cases.

Just like in other parts of the world, including the U.S., health care workers had to overcome the challenge of persuading some villagers that it was safe and important to get the shot.

“Vaccine hesitancy is a complex issue and it’s extremely important that high quality information is provided to all groups within society,” said a spokesperson for the public-private partnership GAVI, formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which is focused on improving vaccinations in poor countries.

In Maine, there was relief when the century-old Seacoast Mission took on the task of getting the vaccine to the islands.

For islanders, getting to the mainland in the best of circumstances would’ve meant a daylong trip to get the vaccine. Rough weather can delay ferries and mailboats, leaving residents stuck for days. And some are too infirm to travel.

“Life on the islands is remote. And it’s isolated. And I think that isolation is both the attraction but the heart of the challenge,” said John Zavodny, the Seacoast Mission’s president.

On a recent day, it was too windy to take the mission’s boat that’s equipped with medical gear, so a smaller one was used. The team also commandeered a lobster boat for the short trip to Little and Great Cranberry Islands.

Islanders are used to a certain degree of isolation, but this winter was particularly tough on Little Cranberry Island because the community couldn’t even hold its potluck suppers or other regular gatherings due to coronavirus restrictions, said Lindsay Eysnogle, who teaches five children on the island ranging from pre-K to second grade.

The vaccine provides hope that islanders can resume something akin to normalcy.

“Omigosh we are so thrilled,” she said. “This will provide relief from the level of isolation that we’re unaccustomed to out here. It’s just a relief.”

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Dozens of police departments in N.C. used controversial facial recognition app, records show

RALEIGH — More than 60 law enforcement agencies across North Carolina likely used a controversial facial recognition service built using billions of photos collected from social media users without their consent.

That’s according to an analysis from BuzzFeed News, which on Tuesday published data from a trove of leaked documents detailing the client list of Clearview AI, a technology startup that has pitched its app as a groundbreaking tool for criminal investigators. Since its launch in early 2018, the company has touted success stories that include the identification of suspects in crimes against children — including one man who faces child porn charges in Raleigh — as well as pro-Trump rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

With a single photo, the company says its app can identify a suspect in seconds, linking them to public social media profiles and related images with a level of accuracy that far exceeds anything else on the market. That algorithmic power comes from data — your data, specifically — since Clearview built its facial recognition algorithm using billions of photos scraped from social media sites contributed by millions of unsuspecting users.

The company’s practices have raised the ire of social media giants and privacy advocates alike. Facebook, Google and other tech firms have demanded Clearview stop hoovering up user images for its ever-evolving algorithm. And groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have grown increasingly concerned about the implications of a world where practical anonymity is no longer possible.

That criticism has morphed into lawsuits against the company in several states, as well as broader moratoriums in multiple cities banning the use of facial recognition software by government and, in some cases, private companies.

Raleigh police chief banned use of Clearview

In North Carolina last year, Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown banned her officers’ use of Clearview six months into a yearlong contract with the company. The move came weeks after WRAL-Channel 5 raised questions about whether use of the service violated the Raleigh Police Department’s own policies.

Records released by the department show the app ultimately led to charges for at least one suspect: James Mero, who in 2019 was arrested and charged with more than 30 crimes related to fraud and sexual exploitation of a minor. Details of that case made it into the company’s marketing materials.

Until now, there’s been little disclosure from Clearview users — or Clearview itself — on how often the service has identified members of the public.

Even the app’s use locally has been murky. A Raleigh police spokesperson told WRAL last year that “there is no way to accurately gauge or gather” data on how many sworn officers or civilians used the service because the company was at times communicating directly with officers about free trials and demos.

Nationally, BuzzFeed News revealed in February 2020 that paying clients of Clearview included not just law enforcement agencies, but schools, major companies and even the NBA. And following reporting that first revealed the widespread use of Clearview to the general public, The New York Times showed how high-profile users deployed the app at parties, bars and, in one SoHo restaurant, to identify the unknown date of one billionaire’s daughter.

But BuzzFeed’s latest report reveals far more detail about Clearview’s client list, including how often users employed the technology to identify people.

The news organization’s searchable database lists 64 state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies, some of which the records show used the service 1,000 to 5,000 times through February 2020.

But the data comes with plenty of caveats. Hundreds of organizations in the list denied using Clearview altogether, and more than 1,000 didn’t respond to requests for comment. And because of direct communication between the company and officers or free demo offers, some organizations said they were unaware that the app was in use.

Raleigh, Charlotte among top users in N.C.

Among the top users in the BuzzFeed data in North Carolina were police departments in Raleigh, Fayetteville and Charlotte with a reported 1,001 to 5,000 uses.

A spokesperson with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

In Raleigh, police spokesperson Dia Harris said Tuesday afternoon “there is no way to corroborate” the number of searches BuzzFeed attributed to the agency.

In a statement, Fayetteville Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Jeremy Glass confirmed the agency has used the service since a trial starting in December 2019 and became licensed users in September 2020. He said the department follows the company’s usage policies, which among other things require that the facial recognition app only be used for law enforcement purposes.

“Over the course of the almost year and a half that we have been Clearview users, it has been a strong asset in our toolbox, generating numerous leads for investigators by efficiently searching open source records,” Glass said. “From banking fraud investigations to Human Trafficking investigations, the introduction of AI technology greatly reduces the chance of human error during a manual search process of open source records.”

Since December 2019, Glass said the department has run 3,000 searches with Clearview AI, returning about 1,700 matches.

Police departments in Mooresville and Cary, along with alcoholic beverage control agencies in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, were also near the top with 501 to 1,000 uses.

A spokesperson with the city of Mooresville didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Cary Director of Public Safety Allan Cain, however, confirmed in an interview with the N&O that the town police department used a trial of the service for about four months, ending in late February.

“It’s a great technology to use in some applications, but it did not suit our department at the time,” Cain said.

During that trial, Cain said, the department used the app “fewer than 600 times” — an average of four to five times a day.

“I can’t say if that’s a lot or not,” he said, adding that the results were never used to bring any criminal charges.

Some of those uses may have been unauthorized, Cain said, since Clearview regularly offered free trials directly to officers without the knowledge of department leadership.

Triad data

Use of the software was much more limited in the Triad, according to BuzzFeed’s reporting.

Both Greensboro and Winston-Salem police had 11-50 uses, according to the database.

Greensboro police spokesman Ron Glenn told BuzzFeed the department “does not use, or have plans to purchase Clearview AI software.”

“We do not currently use any facial recognition software,” Glenn said. “We are familiar with the product but at no time considered purchasing the product for use in our department.”

Winston-Salem police did not respond to Buzzfeed’s request for comment.

While High Point police were listed as having a slightly higher use of the software, 51-100 times, Lt. Matt Truitt told BuzzFeed, “We do not and have not had that system.”

Kernersville Police Department was in the lowest tier among Triad agencies, with 1-5 uses reported in the database.

Wake, Mecklenburg ABC boards use Clearview

Julia Paul, a spokesperson with the Mecklenburg County ABC Board, confirmed that the organization’s law enforcement arm used Clearview during a free trial, but “opted not to contract nor use the tool after the demo period ended in 2020.” She said the agency did not track the number of times its staff used the app.

“The software was never used to bring charges against any individuals,” Paul said.

Wake County ABC Board law enforcement Chief Kevin Lawrence said the app is still in use by his investigators.

Only 11 North Carolina agencies in BuzzFeed’s list responded to the publication’s request for comment. Several said investigators only used it during a trial or demo period, and others denied using it altogether.

Ann Webb, senior policy counsel for ACLU North Carolina, said BuzzFeed’s reporting highlights the group’s concerns over the lack of regulation around the technology. What’s needed now, she said, are community conversations about the use of facial recognition “before this spirals out of control.”

“Clearview’s facial surveillance technology as used by law enforcement is an extreme invasion of privacy in that it gives the government unprecedented power to track everyday movements,” Webb said.

Clearview AI did not respond to a request for comment on BuzzFeed’s reporting Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to private lawsuits, some state attorney generals have also moved against the company. In Vermont, Attorney General T.J. Donovan sued the company over violations of the state’s consumer protection and data privacy laws. And shortly after The New York Times’ initial report on Clearview in 2020, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered police in the state to stop using the service.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has not followed suit.

“Our office is paying close attention to this but hasn’t taken any formal action at this point,” Laura Brewer, a spokesperson for Stein, said in a statement.

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Guilford health officials urge parents to go with minors getting COVID-19 shots

GREENSBORO — Guilford County health officials are encouraging parents to accompany minors when they get their COVID-19 shot.

As of Wednesday, anyone age 16 or older can receive the coronavirus vaccine in North Carolina.

While not required, Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann urged parents to come with their children to the appointment and be prepared to sit with them during the 15- to 30-minute observation period.

“If you cannot accompany a minor to their vaccine, it is important that they have a good understanding of what they are receiving, the potential side effects of the vaccine and that they will need to return for a second dose,” Vann said during a Wednesday news conference.

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not approved for people younger than 18. See correction at the bottom of this story. Both Pfizer and Moderna, the other two federally-approved vaccines, require a second shot weeks later.

Courtesy of Guilford County 


Vann said parental consent is not required as long as the adolescent is able to make medical decisions for themselves and understands the risks and benefits of the vaccine.

Also during the weekly briefing, the county announced it is acquiring three mobile vaccination units, the first of which will arrive in mid-May.

“We’re excited to receive the van and to be able to take our vaccines on the go a little bit more,” Vann said.

Thus far, 28% of Guilford County residents are partially vaccinated and 17.8% are fully vaccinated, Emergency Management Director Don Campbell said at the news conference.

The county has administered nearly 84,000 doses of the vaccine, including 47,004 first doses, 35,435 second doses and 1,098 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“So those are some great numbers (that) continue to climb and get us closer to those goals overall,” Campbell said.

And while demand for the vaccine has slowed — some appointments between today and April 12 remained available Wednesday morning — Campbell said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Releasing 8,912 appointments right after the Easter break is a lot of appointments to be able to get out there. And so we’re not overly surprised that we still have some available,” he said.

Health officials also will be closely monitoring COVID-19 cases in the next couple of weeks to gauge what impact travel and gatherings during spring break might bring.

“We don’t have a clear picture of how that’s going to look like because we’re still in that incubation period right now,” Vann said. Based on experience with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, she said “we are anticipating to see a slight spike in cases.”

The county is still seeing some deaths from the January and February spike in cases, Vann added.

COVID-19 testing also is slowing down in the county. Vann encouraged people who have gathered with others outside of their household or who have been in “high risk” situations where masks weren’t worn to get tested, even if they’re asymptomatic.

“You may not have symptoms, but you can still be infected and you can still affect others,” she said.

She attributed the recent rise in the county’s positivity rate, which stood at 6.7% Wednesday, to more people getting tested who already are exhibiting signs of the disease.

As for variants to the disease, such as the highly contagious strain first identified in the United Kingdom, Vann said neither the county nor the state is equipped to determine how widespread it is here.

“So we don’t have a very clear picture of what is the number of variants in the community,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta tests randomized samples to determine the spread of variants. On Wednesday, the CDC announced the UK variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States.

All three vaccines have shown they provide adequate protection against this variant, federal health officials have said.