Cumberland School Board Jumps the Gun, Leaves Kids at the Starting Line

This morning, the Cumberland County Board of Education voted to keep all school children at home for the remainder of 2020. The vote was 6-3.

They should have waited a day.

At 3:00 p.m., Governor Cooper held a press conference. He announced that he was relaxing his current order. Now, any county in North Carolina can fully open schools for elementary age children.

I repeat: elementary schools can open fully under “Plan A” in North Carolina.

Cumberland Ignores the Science

The reasons given by Gov. Cooper and Mandy Cohen for the change:

  • younger children are less likely to spread the virus
  • younger children do not suffer as many significant health effects from the virus
  • there has been no difference in community spread in counties that have already opened up in-person learning

Apparently, none of this “science” matters to the Cumberland County Board of Education. We are stuck in “Plan C.”

It’s possible that unless our school board re-evaluates this decision, we will be one of a few counties left without any in person education.

Sub-Standard Learning

If you want to know why virtual learning is an inadequate substitute for a real classroom, please watch this video of a virtual meeting that occurred this morning:

Notice that several participants can’t get their cameras to work.

Notice how hard it is to hear and figure out who is talking.

Notice the confusion and the difficulty controlling the meeting.

It’s hard to follow isn’t it?

Now imagine these people are six years old.

Cumberland School Board’s Failing Covid Science

If you live in Cumberland County and have kids in public schools, you certainly have strong feelings about whether they should return to the classroom. I’ve advocated for a return for several months. You may disagree, but I think everyone believes that the decision should be made on clear science. A flawed system may keep that from happening.

Our school board is currently laying the bureaucratic groundwork to keep our kids at home for the foreseeable future. Their tool: a system of metrics that measure the “covid risk level” in Cumberland County.

The above graphic is taken from a youtube video of the school board’s last virtual meeting. Many of these graphics are blurry screenshots. Apologies, I can’t find the actual charts online. You can watch the video below for clearer images:

The covid metric spreadsheet appears five minutes into the video. It seems that the county gets “points” for four covid metrics:

  • Case positivity rate
  • New cases per capita
  • Rate of acceleration
  • Active clusters in last 2 weeks

More points = More Covid. The maximum score is 13.

According to our county leaders, we should have a score of 4 or less before kids can go back to class. We’re currently at a score of 6.

Accelerated Spread?

A score of 6 puts us in the “Accelerated Spread” category (Orange).

But look closer. The “rate of acceleration” metric says “14 day deceleration.” It’s green.

So we’re in the “Accelerated Spread” category when our “rate of acceleration” is going down? This is absurd on its face. Covid can’t accelerate and decelerate at the same time. It exists in the universe and there are laws governing such things.

Newton's Laws of Motion | SciTechTrain.com

Positivity Rate Wrecking the Metrics

Looking closer, it appears that our phantom “acceleration” comes from our current positivity rate. We received 4 of our 6 points from this category alone. Skip to 16:00 in the youtube video to see how this works.

Under the current system, if Cumberland County’s positivity rate was below 6% (it’s currently 7.7%) we would get 2 points instead of 4, for a total score of 4 points. At 4 points, the “metric system” would recommend that our kids go back to school.

Making this worse is the fact that Cumberland County’s positivity rate jumps around. The reason is that the rate is entirely dependent on the number of tests that are analyzed on a given day. You can use the following link to see that we’ve been as low as 5% and as high as 15% within the past month.

https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard/testing

What it Means

It’s entirely possible that our school board keeps school shut down based on a small percentage of one data point.

Since its the linchpin, we may as well read the data point’s “fine print”:

Description/Data Source: This shows the percent of positive tests as a proportion of total (Electronic Lab Reporting) ELR tests. We know that as testing increases, the number of cases can climb. This gives us an idea of the number of cases with respect to the amount of testing being done. These are only calculated using results from labs that report into NC EDSS electronically, listed below. Thus, this many not be representative if a large amount of tests in Cumberland County are being done by labs not reporting electronically. The percent positive displayed is the average percent positive during the last two weeks. Data in this spreadsheet is updated on Mondays. https:covid19nchdds.gov/dashboard/testing

It “may not be representative” but it “may be” the thing that keeps your kids from going to school. Welcome to 2020!

Charlie Brown Football Kick GIF | Gfycat

I think we need to find out if there’s a large number of tests in Cumberland County that aren’t being reported. If so, why are we even using this percentage in our decision making? You might as well pick a random number.

A Way Forward

If we’re going to open schools in Cumberland County, we’ve got to get a new system, or at least give less weight to the “percent positive” number that is admittedly based on incomplete data.

A cynic might say that Governor Cooper, NCDHHS, and County administrators set up these metrics with the goal of keeping schools closed. I’m not quite there yet, but if they don’t fix it, I will be.

Here’s one solution: from the very beginning, we have been told that we needed to “shut down” in order to “slow the spread” and avoid overwhelming our health care system. Remember that? What happened that that data point? Fortunately, it’s still being monitored:

If you go to 36:00 minutes in the video, you will hear Michael Nagowski, the head of Cape Fear Valley Hospital. He notes that the number of covid patients has been cut in half since the peak of the pandemic. He says there are twenty eight people at the medical center that are “also covid positive.” The peak was fifty-seven.

This is consistent with (if not better than) the trend across the state:

The number of individuals hospitalized in Cumberland County for covid should carry as much, if not more weight, than the percentage of positive tests. Hospitalizations are not dependent on the number of tests given or the number of labs electronically reporting results to the state. In fact, hospitalizations, apart from deaths, are the best way to determine the severity of the pandemic in this community. There is no “fine print.”

Last Analysis

These types of formulas are wonderful for elected officials. Our leaders can sit back and point to a graph or chart and avoid making a difficult decision themselves. It’s the definition of political “cover.” The problem is that once you get in the weeds, you find that the cover is often a smokescreen.

Remember that the ultimate decision rests with your elected officials, not some contradictory color-coded chart on a blurry youtube video. Hold them accountable.

Our kids deserve real school.

Our kids deserve real science.

Spread the word. We can make that happen.

Downtown Development in Fayetteville: A Way Forward

I’ve been writing critically about the downtown development project in Fayetteville for over two years. The purpose of this post is to pose a solution to an ongoing problem. I hope our city leaders take it seriously. If not, I hope they think of something.

Background

In 2017, the City of Fayetteville entered into a contract with several developers to construct a parking deck, offices, and a hotel downtown. The gist of it was this:

The developers would own land next to the new baseball stadium. The developers would build a parking deck on this land. Offices and a hotel would be constructed on top. Once completed, the city would buy the parking deck structure (at cost) and then lease most of the the spaces back to the developers.

FayBaseball

The carrot to the developers was government money.

The carrot to the city was economic development downtown. The city could finance the baseball stadium with the increased property tax revenues that were scheduled to come with the new development. This enabled the city to borrow money without putting a bond referendum on the ballot or raising taxes.

The contract between the city and the developers was amended five times, each time to the advantage of the developers. Often, the cost went up for the taxpayers. Other times, the completion date was pushed back.

Frozen

Construction never started on the hotel or offices above the deck. Then, covid hit.

“Similar to real estate development projects across the country, COVID-19 has paused these projects, particularly commercial ones like our office and hotel towers,” Jones added.

Jones said as of today, his company is not able to provide an updated timeline on when work on the office or hotel project will resume or its completion date.

https://www.fayobserver.com/story/news/politics/government/2020/07/07/construction-halts-on-fayetteville-office-and-hotel-project-on-top-of-hay-street-parking-garage/112289382/

Since the beginning, my major complaint with the project was that it was an expenditure of taxpayer dollars without a public purpose. Millions were to be spent to construct a parking facility that was going to be used primarily by private developers. There’s a legal argument to be made that this violates the North Carolina Constitution as well as the “Downtown Development Statute” which states “…the property interests of the local government shall be limited to facilities for a public purpose.”

Maybe that’s all moot now. It’s readily apparent that we aren’t going to get the development that was promised any time soon. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Hyatt will be constructing a new hotel on a parking deck owned by a municipality on land owned by a development company. This was a stretch in normal times. Times are now anything but normal.

We’re stuck.

A Path Forward

Municipalities have the power to acquire property through the use of eminent domain if the property is being taken for a legitimate public purpose. A municipality must pay the landowner the fair market value of the property in exchange.

The City of Fayetteville currently owns the baseball stadium land (parcel 460 below) as well as the sliver of land connecting the stadium to Hay Street.

Parcel (466) is the parking deck. The land is currently owned by Hay Street Development Pad, LLC. Fayetteville can “take” the land and the deck. The taxpayers will only have to pay the fair market value of the property as it sits today. Presumably, our city leaders would negotiate a price that is fair to taxpayers, not the developers. If no agreement can be reached, the matter can go before a jury to set the value.

Once acquired, the entire deck can be used by the general public. Residents of Prince Charles Apartments can lease spaces, just as any citizen can, for an agreed upon price. The city can lease out spaces to season ticket holders for baseball season and use the deck for other special events at the stadium.

This plan enables both sides to save face. It cuts to the reality that if we were going to get a hotel and offices, we would have already. Covid is an excuse at this point. Let’s call a spade a spade.

If it becomes economically feasible in a post-covid world to develop structures on top of the deck, the city can partner with anyone who is willing to honor its obligations and do so.

Right now, we’re getting nowhere.

2-14 Days

This week, children across our state began gathering together in groups. Many are in day care centers, some are in private schools, and others are in public school classrooms in the 40+ counties that chose to re-open under “Plan B” of Governor Cooper’s order.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s covid numbers are in steady decline. It seems we peaked in Mid-July, along with the rest of the United States.

According to the C.D.C., the incubation period for the virus is 2-14 days.

Based on existing literature, the incubation period (the time from exposure to development of symptoms) of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses (e.g., MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV) ranges from 2–14 days.

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html#Transmission

We should see a spike in cases by the end of August if in-person education spreads the virus under current conditions. If there is no increase, there’s no reason to rob public school children in “Plan C” counties of a real education.

It’s that simple.

As a reminder, I’m appealing to the leadership of Cumberland County Schools and asking them to follow the science.

An Easy Call

Today, Roy Cooper is supposed to announce whether he’ll keep North Carolina in “Phase II” or begin to ease restrictions.

You don’t need to watch the press conference. We’re absolutely staying put in Phase II. Cooper’s got a campaign to win, and he’s not giving away his covid high ground:

But don’t lose too much heart. You won’t need to wait until the end of 2020 for a return to sanity.

It will come on November 4, the day after the election.