B-3rd Interagency Council Meeting Shares Current Research on Children and COVID-19, Focuses on Pandemic Response

The first B-3rd Interagency Council meeting since December 2019 focused almost entirely on the state’s COVID-19 response in child care, preschool, and K-12 schools, and the current science on how children are impacted by the virus. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) also provided some early learning updates. In normal times, the Council’s mission is to create a seamless and integrated birth through third grade education system.

Young Children and COVID-19:  What We Know Now

Dr. Betsy Tilson, State Health Director and the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, shared DHHS’ interpretation of the latest data coming out about children and COVID-19, which likely informed the Governor’s announcement this week that elementary schools can reopen in Plan A. Some highlights of that research:

  • Young children are not immune to COVID-19 but may be less likely to contract it
    • 11% of cases in NC are in children
    • There may be an undercount of cases, however, since children mostly have mild or no symptoms
    • With the same levels of exposure, adults seem to be more likely to get infected than children
    • There has been a steady increase in the number of children who are positive as NC tests more
  • Adults and older children/teens transmit the virus more efficiently than children under age 10, but they can still spread it
    • Young children are most likely to get it from an adult and spread it to another adult
    • Household contact seems to be the most likely way to spread the virus, more than in other settings like schools or child care centers
    • A new case report came out last week from the CDC on the spread of the virus in three child care centers in Utah, where adults spread the virus to preschool children in the center, then 12 children spread it to their family members
  • There are race- and ethnicity-based disparities among children in both the number and severity of cases. For example:
    • Cases: While only 10 percent of the NC population is Latinx, 40 percent of child cases are Latinx children. Thirty percent of child cases are among Black children.
    • Hospitalizations: Latinx children are eight times more likely, and Black children are five times more likely, than white children to be hospitalized due to the virus.
  • Symptoms in children:
    • Most children will have mild or no symptoms, but some children have had more severe disease
    • For children, the hospitalization rate is 8/100,000 cases; whereas for adults it is 164/100,000
    • Infants are more likely than older children to need hospitalization
    • The children least likely to be hospitalized are 2- to 4-year-olds
    • Out of about 20,000 COVID cases in children in NC, 32 children have developed Multi-symptom Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), or about 0.1% of young children with the virus
    • NC has seen one child death from the virus
    • National data show that children with medical conditions are much more likely to be hospitalized and die. About 75 percent of children who have died nationally had one underlying condition, and about 50 percent had two.

NC’s COVID-19 Response in Schools and Child Care

At the September 16th meeting, DPI shared a ‘state of the state’ on school reopening. As of August 11:

  • 925,000 preschool-12th grade students (65 percent, represented by 57 districts) were in schools that were following Plan C, an all-virtual model.
  • 506,000 students (35 percent, represented by 58 districts) were in schools that were following Plan B, a hybrid in-person and virtual model.

Susan Gale Perry, Chief Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, shared an update on COVID-19 guidance, communication, and monitoring for child care, including school-aged care:

  • DHHS has shared guidance documents to support reopening of child care and preschools
  • PPE have been distributed
  • Preschool is currently a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid across the state, and it’s too early to be able to have any results from those various learning platforms
  • DHHS leadership is in regular communication with school leaders and local health departments through calls, webinars, and surveys
  • So far, NC is not seeing a significant uptick in cases among young children as schools and child care settings slowly reopen

Perry shared some about the enormous impact COVID-19 has had on child care providers across the state, many of which have remained open throughout the pandemic, first to serve families of essential workers and now to serve the broader population as people return to work.

  • As of early September, about 80 percent of private child care facilities are open:
    • 93 percent of family child care homes
    • 77 percent of centers
  • Child care providers are having to meet additional COVID health and safety requirements that are layered on to normal health and safety requirements
  • Providers are facing lower enrollment numbers, with only about half (52%) of children so far returning to child care (compared to numbers in February 2020).
  • Of families receiving child care subsidy, 84 percent have returned to child care.
  • Sixty percent of child care providers’ funding comes from private tuition, and only 54 percent of private-pay families have chosen to return their children to care, which makes it difficult for programs to be able to afford to remain open.
  • According to the data DHHS has, between June 22 and Sept 14, there have been 26 clusters of COVID-19 in child care settings, 20 of which are still ongoing. There have been 120 cluster-associated cases (that the state knows about) among staff, and two deaths. There have been 80 cluster-associated cases among children (that we know about).
  • The child care workforce is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, being more than half women of color, most of whom fall into one of the high-risk categories. Child care teachers make on average $11 per hour and many do not have health insurance.

Kevin Campbell, Chair of the North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association and President of Smart Kids Child Development Center added that the stress of the pandemic is taking its toll. Child care centers have lost many staff members who have indicated they do not want to return to the profession, and the current pipeline of child care teachers is not robust. Advocates stress that recruiting and retaining high-quality early educators will require paying them living wages, on par with public school teachers, for the critical work they do.

Perry shared that there has been a drop-off in enrollment in NC Pre-K. About 90 percent of NC Pre-K contractors have reported what method of instruction they will use this year:

  • 40 percent will be fully remote
  • 29 percent will be hybrid
  • 25 percent will be in-person
  • 6 percent will choose not to continue with the NC Pre-K program

For school-aged child care, the state is working closely with school districts to prioritize the use of available slots in open child care programs and also contract with community-based child care such as YMCAs.

CARES Act funding for child care has thus far been spent on:

  • Teacher and staff bonus payments in April and May
  • Emergency Child Care Subsidy program in April and May
  • Operational grants for open child care facilities in April-July
  • PPE and cleaning supplies
  • Technical assistance
  • Covering the parent co-pays for the subsidy program from April-July

The remaining CARES Act funds will be spent on PPE and another round of operational grants.

Early Learning Updates

DPI also shared a few early learning updates, including:

  • The B-3 reading definition has been approved by the state board
  • DPI and DHHS released joint guidance on child care and schools reopening
  • The new Early Learning Inventory (which replaces the Kindergarten Entry Assessment) will roll out this year, but due dates are extended by 30 days to give kindergarten teachers more time to complete this observation-based assessment. The Department shared guidance on how the assessment can be implemented virtually and will host a series of support webinars to guide teachers through the process.
  • The State Board of Education has approved five diagnostic assessments and districts have chosen which ones they will use this year. All assessments can be converted to Lexile reading levels, so the data can be compiled and analyzed across the state. They can be delivered remotely or in-person. Students will be assessed at beginning of year (BOY) in September, middle of year (MOY) in January, and end of year (EOY) in May. For 2020-21, only the MOY and EOY assessments will be used to determine teacher growth and performance. The BOY assessment will be used only for individualizing students’ instruction.

Next Steps

The Council’s next meeting will be held virtually on December 16. Members have requested that topics beyond the COVID-19 response be addressed, such as:

  • Coordination with the Leandro Action Plan
  • Getting back to the goals of the B-3 Council legislation, including deciding what do with recommendations that came out of workgroups at previous meetings
  • Professional development around early literacy

B-3 Council Background and New Members

The B-3 Council’s vision is that “North Carolina’s children and families will experience a seamless continuum of high-quality birth to third grade education that is easy to navigate and access, supports young children’s optimal learning and development, engages and values families as their children’s first and best teachers, and is guided by research-based, data-driven outcomes.” The Council’s pre-COVID-19 focus was to:

  • Develop recommendations to facilitate a system of ongoing collaboration and coordination among departments, divisions, and organizations, at both the state and local levels, to best serve 0-8 children and their families.
  • Develop recommendations to align 0-8 data measurement systems and ensure ongoing performance accountability.
  • Develop recommendations to streamline and increase efficiency of transitions in 0-8 instruction.
  • Readily and transparently communicate findings.

The B-3 Council is co-chaired by Susan Gale Perry, Chief Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Chloe Gossage, Chief Strategy Officer in the Office of the State Superintendent. Several new members were introduced at this week’s meeting, including:

  • Ariel Ford, newly-named Director of the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE)
  • Representative Dr. Perrin Jones, House District 9
  • Mary Smith Olvera, Education Program Administration, Career and Technical Education Coordinator for the NC Community College System
  • Amy Cubbage, Executive Director of the NC Partnership for Children/Smart Start
  • Aurora Swain, Director of Operations, Families First in Cabarrus County

Other attending members at the September meeting included:

  • Representative Craig Horne, NC General Assembly
  • Kevin Campbell, Chair, North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association; President, Smart Kids Child Development Center
  • Nancy Brown, Early Childhood Expert; Board Member, NC Partnership for Children
  • Susan Gates, Special Advisor on Education, SAS Institute Inc.
  • Elisa Childers, Executive Director, Children’s Council of Watauga County