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Pandemic could push more North Carolina families to home school

ASHEVILLE — Until recently, Bruce Hirsch hadn’t seriously considered home schooling. Content sending his 7-year-old son, Jonathan, to public school at Haw Creek Elementary in Asheville, the retired doctor doubted whether he’d have the patience to facilitate his son’s at-home curriculum.

But after seeing North Carolina’s proposed school reopening plans for next school year, he has begun exploring his options.

“I would really love my kid to go to public school this year, but from a variety of things I’ve read from the governor and his staff, what they’re doing I think is basically absurd,” Hirsch said. “Until things get back to some sense of normalcy, I don’t want (Jonathan) being treated at school as if he was a leper.”

As North Carolina families sort through uncertainties surrounding the 2020-21 school year, some anticipate already increasing home-schooling rates will soar as a result of the pandemic.

Education consultants and home schooling advocates say they’re fielding more inquiries about at-home learning than ever before.

“I feel like COVID has kind of been a catalyst for many families,” said Angie Cutlip, an education consultant in Wendell. “They now feel like they can have more consistency if they know they’ll do homeschooling throughout the year.”

Cutlip suggested parents gained confidence in their abilities to home-school after monitoring their children’s remote learning throughout the spring.

Home schooling rise

Registering a home school only takes minutes online, with parents needing to give their school a name, prove they hold a high school diploma or GED, and provide the ages and genders of each student being home-schooled.

State law mandates home-schoolers take annual standardized math and reading tests and keep immunization and attendance records.

North Carolina home-schooling enrollment has risen nearly every year since the state’s Supreme Court formally permitted home-based education in 1985. Last year, 149,173 students homeschooled, which would make home schooling the second-largest school district in the state. Over the past decade, home school enrollments jumped 83%, with 2019-20 seeing a 5% increase over the prior school year.

Once attended predominantly by religious families looking to separate their children from secular public school curriculum, current home schools draw students for a variety of reasons. Last year, 44% of home schools registered as non-religious according to the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education.

Coronavirus may add another factor.

Choices and challenges

Interested in offering Jonathan a secular curriculum grounded in fundamental reading and math, Hirsch joined a Western North Carolina home-schooling Facebook group where he connected with long-time home-schooling parents. Hirsch picked up workbook recommendations and strategies on staggering the traditional six-hour school day.

“I don’t know if I can teach him as well as the school can,” Hirsch said. “It takes a certain kind of personality to do it.”

He added Jonathan would miss the typical socialization of the school day.

Hirsch and his wife, Ofri, will await details on Buncombe County Schools’ reopening plan before making their decision on home schooling. In turn, Buncombe County Schools and districts across North Carolina look toward upcoming state guidelines before announcing their specific reopening plans.

In June, Gov. Roy Cooper directed all school districts and charter schools to develop three potential reopening plans: Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C.

Plan A calls for all students to attend schools at the same time. Plan B limits schools to 50% of their maximum capacity, as students may alternate attending schools for portions of the day, week, or month. Plan C is exclusively remote learning, a system many families have grown accustomed to since mid-March, when school buildings first closed amid COVID-19 safety concerns.

These guidelines will be a baseline; any of the state’s 115 school districts may choose a more restrictive plan though none may choose a more lenient option.

Guilford County Schools anticipates making its decision July 28. Guilford’s Superintendent Sharon Contreras said during Tuesday’s school board meeting that she wants to begin the academic year with five weeks of remote learning. She hopes to bring back either grades K-8 or K-9 for in-person instruction after those first five weeks, while leaving most high school students to take online courses from home.

With district lessons set to begin on Aug. 17, some believe parents will delay their schooling choice right up until classes resume.

“I think many families are going to slow walk their decision as long as they can,” said Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “We’re still waiting to see what schools are going to look like in our state.”

Parents of students on individual education plans (IEP) say they’re eyeing home schooling as a path to ensure their children’s unique needs are met.

“Distance learning will not work for my 16-year-old,” said Emily Davis, of Cashiers, NC, whose son Cameron has autism. “On the other hand, I’m not excited about the prospect of him going back either.” Davis explained Cameron has sensory issues that would make wearing a mask difficult.

Other parents aren’t waiting to pull children from traditional schooling. Last week, Jennifer Petosa withdrew her daughter, Azalea, 8, from the private Asheville Waldorf School. Petosa didn’t wish to pay tuition for an atypical educational experience, be it virtual or in-person.

New models

A potential home-schooling boom arrives as North Carolina school districts already look to reverse dipping enrollments. Since 2014-15, state public schools have taught approximately 30,000 fewer students, a decline of about 2%. Each exodus brings a loss of funding, as districts receive dollars on a per-student basis.

During this same time period, home-schooling enrollment in North Carolina spiked 40%.

Adapting to heightened competition from home schooling, as well as charter and private schools, districts have developed virtual and blended models, where home-schoolers can take a few district courses — online or in physical classrooms — and then be eligible to participate in public school athletics and extracurriculars.

“That’s why we launched the Blend + Ed option, because we did see that there was an increase in people that were being home-schooled but still wanted that interaction with their local school,” said Catherine Murphy, director for communications at Moore County Schools.

In response to COVID-19, multiple North Carolina school districts — including Moore, Wake, and Cumberland — introduced additional virtual school options for families wary of sending students to school buildings.

And the state has approved Guilford County Schools’ application to create two new virtual schools: Guilford eLearning Virtual Academy for grades K-5 and Guilford eLearning University Prep Academy for grades 6-12.

Buncombe County Schools will allow every student to access online lessons, regardless of the governor’s future guidelines.

Human-to-bat transmission of COVID-19 worries wildlife experts. The disease could devastate the already dwindling North Carolina bat population.

MAYODAN — Most people tend to avoid bats. However, doing so now could mean the difference between survival and extinction for some of the species in North Carolina.

That’s why padlocked briefcases and meter-long acoustic recorders are sprinkled across the state’s parks. Han Li, a veteran mammalogist, is spending the summer studying these sites.

He’s researching bats, specifically bat sounds.

“This is the only type of study we can do this summer and for the foreseeable future because we cannot risk transmitting the coronavirus to bats,” Li said. “It is very likely the virus could be transmitted because there are so many infected people out there.”

With the number of confirmed cases rising in the state, mammalogists and wildlife experts are raising concerns and taking precautions against human-to-bat transmissions of COVID-19, which could be devastating to the already declining bat population in North Carolina.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published research potentially linking the origin of COVID-19 to bats, North America’s bat population has been completely untouched by the pandemic, so far. Experts want to keep it that way.

A backdrop on bats

Over the past few years, white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that affects hibernating bats, has cut North Carolina’s bat population nearly in half.

More than half of the 17 bat species in North Carolina are listed as “federally endangered,” “federally threatened,” “at risk” or a “species of special concern” by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC).

With so many species at risk, the commission began issuing permits allowing rehabilitators to work with endangered bats for the first time this year. This previously was illegal because of the ability of bats to carry rabies.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has put all these efforts on pause.

“Our recommendation for now is that until we know more, rehabilitators should not take in any endangered bat species,” said Falyn Owens, an extension wildlife biologist with the NCWRC.

“We don’t know if our North American bats are susceptible to contracting the virus, and if they are, we don’t know the effect that might have on the bat population.”

This recommendation was issued to rehabilitators in mid-May and according to Owens could last until the pandemic ends, whenever that may be.

“When it comes to COVID-19, we really don’t know if there would be any impact at all,” Owens said. “But because white-nose syndrome has affected some of our bat populations so drastically, it’s not worth taking the risk that this virus could also have a negative impact.”

The risk is especially high since data published in the first Wildlife Diversity Program Quarterly Report of 2020 showed the state’s bat count increasing for the first time in nearly a decade.

“Results from winter bat surveys were more encouraging than they have been since the grim effects of (white-nose syndrome) began in 2012,” the report stated. “Hopefully these increases in hibernating bats become a widespread trend across western NC in the future.”

The commission’s recommendation only affects bats. Rehabilitators permitted to work with other rabies vector species, such as skunks, foxes, raccoons and bobcats can still do so.

In North Carolina there are approximately 480 active wildlife rehabilitators certified by the NCWRC, and less than 7% are licensed to work with bats.

“Since it hasn’t been allowed in the state before, we’re not sure how many bats would be affected by losing rehabilitation,” said Mary Frazer, co-chair of the North Carolina Bat Working Group. “It’s not common, but if a person came across an injured bat we would want to rehabilitate it, especially if it’s an endangered species. But now we can’t and it’s sad because we were really excited to have this change in regulation.”

The working group, which is made up of approximately 150 bat experts and enthusiasts, seeks to create a network of the studies being conducted in North Carolina.

“There are bat activities going on in different agencies in different regions,” Frazer said. “If we don’t get together to see who is doing what, it is difficult to put all of that information together to see what is happening with bat populations across the state.”

Li, who is also the state coordinator for the North American Bat Monitoring Program and a visiting professor at UNCG, is under contract by the NCWRC to conduct his research.

Most recently, Li was in Rockingham County setting up acoustic recording sites in Mayo River State Park — home to two of the nearly 80 sites he will be collecting data from this summer.

The sites record sound from sunset to sunrise and are specially built to record the high-frequency sounds bats use to communicate. According to Li, most N.C. bats communicate in frequencies ranging from 20 to 120 kilohertz — well beyond the human hearing range, which is only between 15 to 20 kilohertz.

The acoustic information allows Li to analyze flight patterns and estimate bat populations, which will be shared with agencies across the state.

By pausing any “capture and handle” studies, he hopes to minimize the chances of human-to-bat transmissions of COVID-19.

“There is no way we can allow another disease to spread that could potentially kill more bats,” Li said. “It is a risk we cannot take.”

According to Li, human-to-bat transmissions of COVID-19 could have just as much of a negative impact on humans. Especially if it creates a new strain of the virus that is eventually passed back to humans.

“It’s not that bats passing it back to us is the issue, the threat is a species in the middle — an intermediate host — that would eventually get to humans,” Li said. “The chance a bat gets so close to a human that it exchanges respiratory droplets is not likely, but it is likely that there is an animal in the middle. Perhaps some kind of food source, like a meat, that we eat.”

This exact fear made its way into pop culture through the 2011-film “Contagion.” Spoiler — the entire plot is based on a bat sharing a banana with a pig, which is later cooked by humans thus starting a global pandemic.

Despite the tough reputation, Frazer says bats play a critical role in North Carolina’s ecology.

“Bats in the Eastern U.S. are all insectivores. They provide an amazing service to farmers and all North Carolinians by eating insects,” Frazer said. “And besides the entomologists (who study insects), who doesn’t hate bugs?”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Three of five detention officers were either suspended or placed on administrative leave in the weeks before charges were announced in John Neville's death, according to records

WINSTON-SALEM — Three of the five detention officers charged in the death of a Greensboro man last year were either suspended or placed on administrative leave in the weeks before the criminal charges were filed, according to records.

John Elliott Neville, 56, died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, two days after he suffered a seizure and fell from his top bunk bed at the Forsyth County Jail.

According to an autopsy report, Neville suffered a brain injury that came about after his heart stopped beating. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded up in a position often referred to as hog-tied.

On July 8, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced that five detention officers and a nurse had been charged with involuntary manslaughter — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; and Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36, and nurse Michelle Heughins, 44.

Records requested by the Winston-Salem Journal show that Roussel was placed on administrative leave with pay on June 2 and Williams was placed on administrative leave with pay on July 2. Poole was suspended without pay for three days, starting on June 26, the first day that the sheriff’s office publicly acknowledged Neville’s death after getting questions from the Journal.

According to the records, Poole was then placed on probation for 12 months after the three-day suspension.

It was not immediately clear whether these actions against Roussel, Poole and Williams were related to Neville’s death. Woodley and Stamper were not suspended or placed on administrative leave, according to the records.

Christina Howell, the spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, has said that no disciplinary action was taken against the detention officers during an investigation into Neville’s death by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Tony Burton, the human resources manager for the sheriff’s office, said Friday afternoon that he was out of the office and could not immediately provide answers to questions from the Winston-Salem Journal.

Four of the detention officers were fired on July 7, the day before O’Neill’s news conference. Stamper was terminated on July 8, according to the records.

All of the termination letters reference state law that gives Kimbrough the authority to “hire, discharge, and supervise the employees in his office.”

“I am invoking these powers in discharging you as an employee of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office,” Capt. G.L. East writes in the letters.

Records also indicate that Stamper resigned from the sheriff’s office in February 2017, but was rehired on July 16, 2018. The records do not include the reasons why he resigned.

Protesters have been demonstrating and demanding transparency and answers from the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office about Neville’s death. Last week, demonstrators started all-day occupy events that included educational components and marches to the jail and sheriff’s office. Groups organizing the events include the Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition. The ACLU of North Carolina is supporting local protesters’ demands for answers.

Video of the incident has not been released, and O’Neill said he would oppose a public release, at least for now.

The News & Observer, which also reported on Neville’s death, petitioned for its release, and a hearing is scheduled for July 29 in Forsyth County Superior Court.

The former detention officers and the nurse have all been released on a $15,000 unsecured bond. The detention officers are scheduled to appear in court on Thursday. Heughins is scheduled to appear in court on July 30.