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'We had to do something': Greensboro in state of emergency as COVID-19 cases surge

GREENSBORO — Mayor Nancy Vaughan has issued an emergency order that reinforces a state mandate requiring the use of face masks and limits the number of people who can be together indoors. 

The move comes as COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate in Guilford County and across North Carolina.

Vaughan's order directs local officials to enforce the state regulations with fines and temporary shutdowns of businesses that are not in compliance, the city said Friday in a news release. 

"Looking at the positivity rate and the number of beds being used in the Cone Health system, we had to do something to stem the tide," Vaughan said Friday just before the order went into effect at 5 p.m. "We didn't close any businesses. We didn't tighten the restrictions.

"This is strictly about enforcement to what is already in place."

In addition to reducing indoor gatherings from 25 to 10 people, Gov. Roy Cooper's ongoing order places capacity limits on restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues. 

Vaughan's order requires businesses to clearly mark capacity limits at all entrances, post signs requiring face coverings for access, require employees who interact with the public to wear face coverings and provide hand sanitizer. 

The penalties as laid out in the mayor's order can be severe. Businesses can be fined $100 for each person found on the premises or within the building that is in violation. 

A city official will issue a warning for the first violation.

A second violation would allow the city to order that a business close for 24 hours.

Penalties grow more severe for repeated violations, which include closing a business for as long as 72 hours.

Vaughan stressed that these are civil, not criminal penalties. But she wants to be clear she's trying to send a message to businesses: They will pay a price if they don't follow the guidelines. 

"Our goal is compliance, not fines," she said.

Vaughan said City Manager David Parrish is assembling teams of employees who will be ready to enforce the order. The city's goal is to make sure the burden of enforcement doesn't fall on police. 

"The police have been very busy and they're responding to a number of different issues," Vaughan said. "It will be good to have other resources to draw from." 

She stressed the city isn't out to hurt merchants, but to educate them about COVID-19 safety procedures. 

As far as whether these measures will lead to something more severe, Vaughan said not yet.

"This is a moving target and has been for the last nine months," she said. "We're going to do what's in the best interest of the city." 

Meanwhile, as the city goes to work enforcing her order, Vaughan said "the staff is already thinking about how they can give greater education to certain businesses. But I can tell you there is no lack of people calling in with complaints." 

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Help a nonprofit help others. Buy a holiday honor card.

GREENSBORO — Habitat for Humanity just released its 2020 Holiday Honor Card "Welcome" by artist Kara Elizabeth Lewis and it's (again) about helping someone else.

So are the equally compelling cards from The Barnabas Network, Greensboro Urban Ministry, The Salvation Army and others.

The nonprofits use the cash from sales of the cards to fund charitable work in the community.

In return, the cards provide an unforgettable gift in someone's honor and help the less fortunate.

Most of the cards are by local artists with a wide audience.

The themes are memorable and have mass appeal. 

Take this year's Salvation Army of Greensboro's Honor Card by artist Judy Meyler. It depicts four children in the falling snow with the words peace, love, joy and hope on their face masks — a nod to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and the persevering spirit of Christmas.

“The Heart of Christmas" card, which uses the features of actual children connected to the nonprofit, is in its second printing. 

"It will be iconic," Meyler said with a laugh.  "Anybody who sees that card years from now will know the year."

The theme for Greensboro Urban Ministry's 2020 Honor Card is "You're Gonna Be OK" and depicts a man making tracks in the snow on a walkway lined with shops and brightly-lit trees.

The scene is the latest from artist William "Bill" Mangum, who started the Honor Card program at the nonprofit 33 years ago to spread joy and help raise money for Urban Ministry, which has long been a community safety net.

"I think this year’s installment of the Honor Card by Bill Mangum is one of his best ever," said the Rev. Myron Wilkins, Urban Ministry's executive director. "And the title ... is a perfect reminder that through all of the ups, downs and uncertainties of 2020, we can still maintain hope that we will all ultimately be OK."

The card is available for a minimum $5 donation per card, with 100% of the money going to help those in need of food and housing.

The Barnabas Network's Honor Card, "A Chair at the Table" by artist Ashley Vanore, supports providing furniture for people transitioning from homelessness, fleeing abuse, recovering from flood or fire or resettling as refugees.

The cards are sold in bundles of five for $20 or 25 for $100. Those who purchase the 25-card bundle will also be entered in a raffle to win the original painting.

"'Chair at the Table' represents the incredible work The Barnabas Network does to provide families and individuals with furniture and necessities, helping to raise them out of troubling situations and to give them a place of reprieve," Vanore said.

Meyler, who has drawn The Salvation Army card for 13 years, sees her work as a type of ministry. Another Salvation Army branch in San Francisco used one of her past honor card drawings for a recent campaign.

"I'm very happy they called me," Meyler said of working with the nonprofit. "When those cards sell, The Salvation Army is able to do even more in the community."

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Despite votes still being recounted, Branson files protest

GREENSBORO — Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson has filed a formal protest in his bid to win reelection even as officials continue their recount of the District 4 race. 

Branson, who is currently trailing challenger Mary Beth Murphy by 70 votes, alleged in his filing Friday with the Guilford County Board of Elections that 464 absentee ballots had irregularities and "lacked sufficient information to identify witnesses."

Branson, a Republican two-term incumbent who was the board's chairman two years ago, asked for a recount on Nov. 4 — the day after the election. At the time, unofficial results showed him behind Murphy, a Democrat, by only 18 votes.

Since then, that deficit has grown to 70 votes.

But Branson believes there is something wrong with many of the ballots cast in his District 4, which covers much of eastern Greensboro and Guilford County. 

He alleged in his filing that 464 absentee ballots counted in the canvass and recount did not have complete information on their mailing envelopes.

Branson also alleged several other irregularities in the county's procedures, including that seven unapproved provisional ballots were counted.

On Thursday, the Board of Elections began its recount of District 4 and two races for the Guilford County Board of Education.

Elections officials will reconvene Monday morning to continue their work.

The elections board is also participating in the statewide recount of ballots for the tight race for the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. 

Branson was unsure what would happen next to his complaint.

Charlie Collicutt, the county's elections director, could not be reached Friday.

Regardless of the outcome, County Commissioner Melvin "Skip" Alston, a Democrat, will find himself in the majority when the new Board of Commissioners is sworn in on Dec. 7, a striking change after eight years of Republican rule. Two other Republicans, outgoing Chairman Jeff Phillips and Commissioner Hank Henning, did not seek reelection and Democrats won their seats on Nov. 3.

Alston, who is likely to seek the chairmanship, took issue with Branson's formal protest on Friday.

"He's just taking a play out of (President Donald) Trump's playbook to delay the inevitable," Alston said. "It’s a trickle-down effect of games being played. They just can't accept the will of the people and the people have spoken."

A very conflicting message: N.C. requires virtual students to take in-person exams

RALEIGH — North Carolina high school students who are taking classes from home because of the coronavirus pandemic soon must come on campus to take state-mandated exams.

In December and January, some high school students across the state will take required state end-of-course exams and state career and technical education post assessment exams. The state is requiring all students to take the tests in person, including families who signed up for virtual programs to avoid having in-person instruction.

"When you sign up for the Virtual Academy, you kind of assume the exams will be virtual too," Anders Rydberg, the parent of two students at Green Hope High School in Cary, said in an interview Wednesday.

Rydberg's daughters are among 25,889 Wake County high school students who are in the district's Virtual Academy program this semester. Similar programs were set up statewide to give options to families concerned about having in-person instruction before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.

The stakes are high for students who refuse to take the state exams. The state Board of Education requires the exams to count for at least 20% of a student's final grade in those classes.

Most North Carolina high school students won't take their final fall semester exams until January. But some students, such as those at early college high schools, will have their tests as soon as early December.

The exams will take place at a time when new coronavirus cases are spiking. North Carolina reported Thursday a record single-day total of new COVID-19 cases.

Parents and school leaders are lobbying for changes this semester and in the spring, when elementary and middle school students will also be taking required state tests. N.C. Families For School Testing has more than 1,000 signatures on an online petition calling for the state to waive the exams "to keep students safe."

"We've heard from people statewide, especially people who fully chose the virtual option," Chelsea Bartel, organizer of N.C. Families For School Testing, said in an interview Wednesday. "They never agreed to send their children in for in-person assessments."

Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the board will discuss the testing issue at its December meeting.

Exams required by state

Both the state and federal governments require annual standardized tests to assess school and student performance and to decide on things such as teacher and principal bonuses. The exams were waived last school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As of now, no waivers have been given for the state exams this school year. President-elect Joe Biden could grant waivers, but he takes office in January after most students will have taken their fall semester exams.

Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, said Friday evening that the district intends to announce details about its testing plans after Thanksgiving break. She said, for instance, the state requires third-graders take a "Beginning of Grade" assessment in reading.

"While we understand why parents might be concerned, we require face coverings and social distancing, and have numerous health protocols in place," Carr said about in-person testing requirements.

With the fall semester moving closer toward completion, school districts are talking with high school students more now about the state exams. Districts are placing the blame on the state, which says the exams need to be taken in front of a proctor and not virtually to ensure test security.

"The state is requiring students to engage in these assessments on a school campus, even for students who have chosen a virtual option," Brian Pittman, Wake County's senior director of high school programs, said at Tuesday's school board meeting.

Pittman said Wake will encourage every student to participate in state testing where their course calls for that.

Schools offer test accommodations

School districts are trying to make taking in-person exams less stressful.

Wake and Johnston counties are telling students that they can take the exams in smaller than normal groups to maintain social distancing. In Durham, the district says they'll have only 10 to 12 test-takers in each room.

Parents are being told that health and safety guidelines will be followed, such as making sure the testing rooms are cleaned and having hand sanitizer available.

Exam makeup dates will also be offered. The state is letting the makeup dates occur as late as the end of the spring semester and into the summer, when COVID-19 conditions should be better. But that's also months after students have finished those classes.

Even with all the promised precautions, Rydberg, the Virtual Academy parent, says he doesn't feel it's worth the health risk to have his daughters take the tests on campus.

"The state is saying stay home," Rydberg said. "But they want them to come to school to take tests. It's a very conflicting message from the state level."

Durham Public Schools is telling people "there is no student/family opt-out option" because the tests are required. But there is a previously little-used option that's on the table.

Medical exemptions possible

Families can request "medical exceptions" from taking state-required exams. The exemptions allow schools to not count the exams when calculating a student's grade in those classes.

Families make the requests through their school district, which then submits them to an internal committee in the state Department of Public Instruction for approval. But Nathanael Shelton, a spokesman for the Johnston County school system, said, "It is rare that they are approved."

Historically, the bar for getting an exemption is high. For instance, the state testing manual cites examples such as students who can't take tests because they're in the "final stages of terminal or degenerative illness, coma, receiving extensive short-term medical treatment."

Students who don't take the required tests and haven't received an exemption could get a grade of "Incomplete" in those classes.

DPI approved 190 requests last fall and 1,411 requests (including elementary and middle school students) in the 2018-19 school year, according to Graham Wilson, a department spokesman. He said no number on how many requests were rejected was available.

Wilson said no changes have been made yet for reviewing requests for this fall's exams.

Davis, the state board chairman, declined to mention what changes might be considered at the board meeting that will be held Dec. 2-3. But options could include modifying the exemption process and waiving the requirement that the exams count in the final grade.

Some may avoid tests

In Wake County, the school district says it can allow students to skip a state exam even if DPI doesn't approve the exemption request. The district's barometer is whether it considers the request to be valid.

When Wake considers the request to be valid, it takes the average of the first and second quarter grades to determine the student's final grade for the class.

Wake may have to revise its definition this year of what is a valid reason for not taking the state exams, according to Brad McMillen, Wake's assistant superintendent for data, research and accountability.

For instance, McMillen said in a normal year saying you live with an ill grandparent would not qualify. But he said that might be different this year if students are worried about contracting COVID-19 on campus and transmitting it to their ill grandparent.

McMillen said Wake, which is the state's largest district, only got 34 exemption requests last fall. But he said they expect to get more requests this fall.

McMillen said district administrators are talking with attorneys about their legal options for handling the exemption requests and the exams in general. For instance, an idea mentioned at Tuesday's board meeting is whether Wake can only count the state exams if they will raise the student's final grade.

"We're going to have to play it by ear and be sensitive to parents," McMillen said in an interview Wednesday. "We don't want to twist people's arms and put them in an untenable situation."