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School superintendent gets emergency power to deal with virus crisis

LOUISBURG -- Meeting in an unusual session to deal with an unusual crisis, the Franklin County Board of Education Monday night granted sweeping emergency powers to Superintendent Rhonda Schuhler to allow her to deal with the escalating COVID-19 crisis.

The special Monday night meeting was conducted partially over the internet and partially in the West River Road administrative complex where board chair Paige Sayles and member Rosemary Champion were in attendance. The remainder of the board joined the meeting electronically, the first time that has been done locally.

The move came after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency and ordered the closure of all the state's public schools through at least March 30 (now revised to May 15).

Since local board of education have supervision over the local public schools, they have the power to prescribe the duties of the superintendent -- and decided that Dr. Schuhler should have greater flexibility to respond quickly to the evolving crisis.

That being the case, the board granted her:

• Authority to temporarily waive board policies or provisions of policies as she deems necessary to comply with guidance from health or government authorities or as necessary for other effective responses.

• Authority to take any lawful actions necessary to ensure the continuation of public education, to provide for the health and safety of students and employees or respond to direction from health and government authorities.

Such actions may include: adjustments to the curriculum and the provision of alternative educational program options; adjustments to employee work schedules and assignments; modifications to the school calendar; adjustments to the delivery of school-provided meals; limitations on access to property owned or controlled by the Board of Education; applying to any governmental body for financial or other aid as may be available; and applying to any governmental body for waiver of regulations or requirements, compliance with which is affected by the COVID-19 emergency.

• Authority to enter into contracts without board approval for any dollar amount necessary for the purchase of resources, materials, equipment, supplies, or services for sanitation, cleaning, technology, instruction or other needs directly related to the COVID-19 emergency situation, provided such action is consistent with all applicable state and federal laws.

The resolution also directs the superintendent to keep the Board of Education informed of any actions taken under this emergency authority as soon as is practical in light of the circumstances.

These emergency powers were set to be in effect for the duration of the governor's order of March 14 and for any subsequent extension of that order unless rescinded or extended by the school board with a two-thirds majority vote.

As an example of how quickly the situation is changing, just prior to the local school board's action late Monday afternoon, the governor held a press conference during which he announced that the state's public K through 12 schools will be closed through May 15 to deal with the crisis.

Although several states have canceled in-person instruction at public schools for the rest of the academic calendar, including neighboring Virginia, Cooper said he wasn't ready to give up on that yet.

"During the Great Depression, North Carolina's leaders made sure that North Carolina's schools stayed open despite tremendous funding challenges," Cooper said. "This is a rapidly evolving public health crisis."

"If you are a (high school) student who was going to graduate in 2020 this June, you will still be on track to graduate this June," N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said Monday.

He added that now is the time to start establishing routines with students at home rather than treating the closure like a long break, Johnson said. Stick to a schedule for waking up, meals and bedtimes.

"Your child does not have to master calculus at home," Johnson said. "Work on remote learning, and read and write for a few hours each day."

Cooper acknowledged that not all students have equal access to the internet. He said he was on a conference call with internet service providers "urging them to get internet access to students who need it as quickly as possible."

Cooper's new executive order also closes several additional business types: gyms, health clubs, movie theaters, hair and nail salons, massage therapists and sweepstakes parlors.

However, he is allowing all the state-owned liquor stores to remain open, apparently to protect the state's revenue stream.

Some counties had already closed many of these businesses, but Cooper's order makes it mandatory statewide.

Gatherings that had previously been limited to fewer than 100 people have now been restricted to fewer than 50.

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