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Big N.C. utilities told to stop disconnections longer amid pandemic

RALEIGH — North Carolina regulators have told the state’s big for-profit electric, natural gas and water utilities to keep delaying disconnections through August as customers still struggle financially from COVID-19.

The state Utilities Commission issued an order late Wednesday, the same day a provision expired in Gov. Roy Cooper’s separate executive order that prevented shutoffs for all residential customers behind on their bills. Both Cooper and the commission initially entered disconnection moratoriums in March.

Services covering about 1.4 million residential customer accounts had become eligible for disconnection as of June 30, according to commission data, with $258 million in unpaid bills for all types of customers. The state’s economy rallied in June, with the unemployment rate falling to under 8%. But that’s still double the pre-pandemic rate, and federal pandemic unemployment benefits of $600 per week are set to expire.

The end of Cooper’s directive meant at a minimum that local governments and cooperatives that provide utility services could resume disconnections, provided customers received a six-month period to pay overdue charges off first.

The commission’s order told the large for-profit utilities like Duke Energy and Dominion Energy they could resume disconnections for nonpayment of bills issued on or after Sept. 1. These utilities also must offer customers in arrears 12-month minimum repayment plans.

Subsidiaries of Duke Energy asked the commission earlier this month to clarify the expiration date of the suspension of disconnections for the for-profit companies, which also include Dominion Energy. According to the commission order, Duke Energy had suggested aligning the expiration with the end of Cooper’s order “would reduce customer confusion and place all North Carolina utility customers on similar footing.” Duke already had planned on an additional 30-day grace period.

The commission wrote that the prohibition of service disconnections for the for-profit utilities could have continued indefinitely. But it noted the length of the coronavirus emergency and resulting accumulated unpaid bills could make it “difficult or in some cases even impossible” for customers to repay and utilities to recoup uncollected revenues.

“The growing unpaid charges could potentially, contrary to the public interest, place continuation of utility service in some areas in jeopardy,” wrote the commission. Cooper appointed all but one of the commission members.

Al Ripley with the North Carolina Justice Center, an advocacy group for low-income residents, said Thursday he was pleased the commission extended the moratorium for the state’s largest utilities, which wasn’t a sure thing.

About 60% of the unpaid bills was attributable to Duke Energy Carolinas, Duke Energy Progress and Dominion Energy through June, the commission said.

Ripley urged Cooper to reinstate the moratorium for municipal and co-op customers and order a similar 12-month repayment plan. These customers, Ripley said, “still have the heat of summer to manage, the danger of heat stroke, and increasing density with families sharing homes during the pandemic.”

Some local governments have been worried they couldn’t cover expenses or debt payment with so many unpaid bills. Elizabeth City received a waiver from the moratorium. Cooper said this week he was working on a program to use federal virus relief dollars to address disconnections and evictions.

North Carolina health officials said Thursday the number of positive COVID-19 cases since the pandemic have exceeded 120,000 with about 1,240 people contracting the virus currently hospitalized. The number of virus-related deaths now exceeds 1,900.


Education
Guilford superintendent, former N.C. governor make plea for stimulus funding to close education's digital divide

GREENSBORO — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gov. Roy Cooper to close North Carolina’s public schools in March, it not only closed buildings for thousands of students statewide, it also exposed a wide digital divide that blocked many of those students from accessing remote learning.

On Thursday, a former N.C. governor, a state senator and the Guilford County Schools superintendent issued a call to Congress for more money in the next economic stimulus package to build a better internet infrastructure to close that divide.

Congressional leaders have been debating in recent days a second round of stimulus dollars that include another direct payment to taxpayers and versions of aid to business. But leaders have offered little discussion about more spending for cables and computers, the raw materials that make distance learning possible for the many poor and rural students who may not have good access to the internet, former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said Thursday during a Zoom news conference.

Five months ago, when businesses and schools shut down, Perdue said, “the whole world began to revolve around technology.”

And, she said, “the digital divide, that terrible known fact of the haves and have-nots in North Carolina, was larger than we thought.”

“It’s time we did a reality check as schools start,” Perdue said.

One study, she and other leaders said, shows that 30% of K-12 students in the state don’t have adequate access to the internet.

That could be from any combination of problems, from no internet service at all to too few devices in a home where more are needed.

In Washington, proposals for emergency education funding currently run into the tens of billions of dollars. but it’s unclear how much of that money would be divided between in-person and distance learning. The Trump administration has pushed for the full opening of school buildings.

“The U.S. education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those caused by a pandemic,” said Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

She said that after the shutdown, Guilford County got a private nonprofit to help it acquire 10,000 computer devices for students, opened up Wi-Fi hot spots in parking lots and sent Wi- Fi-equipped buses into neighborhoods so students could download their lessons if they didn’t have internet access at home.

But the long-term problem remains, Contreras said, and she pleaded with Congress to appropriate money in the coming days to help counties like Guilford, where 17% of students don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet.

With Guilford County preparing to start school on Aug. 17 with nine weeks of online learning, the problem is more urgent, Contreras said.

Republican state Sen. Deanna Ballard, co-chair of the N.C. Senate Education and Education Appropriations Committees, said at the news conference that rural counties have the lowest access to broadband internet, at 50% for some of the least-connected, while such urban counties as Wake have up to 90% of homes connected to broadband.

Ballard added that as many as 10% of teachers don’t have access to broadband, which hinders their ability to teach students in virtual classes.

She said that not only do governments have an obligation to provide money for greater connectivity, but private internet service providers need to be more focused on building their systems to reach people who currently don’t have service.

“It’s just going to take everybody in there working together,” Ballard said.

Perdue said she hates to take a strictly “bottom line” approach to the problem, but as many as a third of students could lose a year of real academic progress during the pandemic partly because of poor virtual learning access, and that will hurt the economy.

“We are training the next generation of workers and we will poorly train them if one-third of them are left behind,” she said.


Z-no-digital
Guilford County Schools' new virtual academies will offer schedule flexibility for families, leader says

GREENSBORO — With Guilford County Schools planning to hold off on classroom instruction for at least the first nine weeks of the new school year because of coronavirus concerns, school officials are fielding questions from parents trying to understand the differences between the remote learning students will receive from their schools compared with the new virtual academies.

“There is one distinct difference with the virtual-learning schools and that is the flexibility,” said Eboni Chillis, the school system’s interim chief innovation officer. “It’s any time, anywhere, any place that students have the opportunity to learn, at home or wherever they may be.”

Chillis and Whitney Oakley, the chief academic officer, took part in an online question-and-answer session about the virtues of both Wednesday night. Parents and others submitted more than 70 questions.

The virtual academies are intended to be a permanent part of the school system, where students could continue to learn even if the pandemic eases in the future.

According to Oakley, students enrolled in virtual academies are likely to get a larger percentage of their lessons prerecorded from teachers. That will allow parents and students more opportunities to pick and choose when learning takes place.

As for students learning remotely, when school starts Aug. 17 they’ll get prerecorded lessons of their own.

After Labor Day, however, virtual learning is expected to shift toward live instruction, although not entirely. Students will be expected to participate in their classes at specific times during the day — a schedule that will look somewhat like a normal school routine.

Oakley said Wednesday that while students enrolled in virtual academies will also have some live instruction, they’ll have a little more opportunity to go at their own pace.

Another distinction between virtual academies and remote learning is that the academies are aimed at students who want to make a longer-term commitment to online learning. Be forewarned: Students will be asked to stick it out for at least a semester.

The registration deadline to enroll in a virtual academy has been extended to Sept. 15. By then, parents should have a better sense from the school board — which will meet a week before then — if schools will be reopened.


Z-no-digital
An interesting article in today's newspaper