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Posts published by “Kathleen Hobson”

Schewel lauds DPS teachers and worries about board members

Mayor Steve Schewel expressed confidence in Durham Public Schools teachers Monday as they began welcoming some children back to their classrooms for the first time in a year, but he said he was concerned about threats against school board members who voted — over the objections of teachers and parents worried about COVID-19 risks — to reopen the schools.

“Our teachers in Durham are so dedicated, and they are going to work their hardest to make this a fantastic experience for their students,” Schewel said in an interview. “Still, this is very difficult to have a classroom where you have to teach both in-person and remotely. It is really hard. It is still going to be an imperfect spring of schooling in Durham and across the country.”

The difficulties of balancing remote and in-person teaching caused hesitation over the decision to reopen. Happi Adams, a Jordan High School teacher, said she was disappointed that high schools will let students return to in-person learning this semester, rather than finish the year with online-only instruction. 

“I don’t think in-person is going to a particularly meaningful or warm and connected experience because of the way we have to do things under the COVID safety protocols,” Adams said. “A few of my students from my classes will be in the building with me, and then the majority of the students that I’m teaching will still be interacting with us via Zoom.” 

According to the DPS website, all schools will hold only-online asynchronous learning on “Wellness Wednesdays.” Elementary students will be in person for the other four days a week. Middle and high school students will attend on Mondays-Tuesdays or Thursdays-Fridays, in  three rotating cohorts. 

Elementary schools reopened their classrooms Monday. The four small specialty high schools (City of Medicine Academy, J.D. Clement Early College High School, Middle College at Durham Tech, and New Tech High School) will reopen for a cohort of students Thursday, while the remaining high schools and middle schools will reopen April 8. 

Some teachers and board members had argued that the schools should not reopen until all DPS employees had been fully vaccinated. 

Board members threatened

Disagreement over reopening has led to threats against DPS board members. Mike Lee, the DPS board vice chair, said during a board meeting on March 2 that teachers had threatened him and his family members. Schewel denounced the “vitriolic attacks and even threats” in a statement released last week.

Local law enforcement is investigating one threat from a parent, he said.

“One parent wrote on social media, ‘If my child is that one in a thousand that gets it and develops serious symptoms … I’ll shoot down every member of the DPS school board,’ ” Schewel wrote. “This is horrifying and scary. I denounce this language in the strongest possible terms.”

Schewel expressed concern about the “particularly profound” nature of threats leveled against Black and Brown board members. The school board’s vote to start reopening this week was 4-3, with all four Black members of the board in the majority. The  board’s one Hispanic and two white members favored reopening at a later date.

“A threat like this is so much more threatening to a Black person than to white people because — even if it’s the exact same threat — Black people have so much more often been the victims of people who carry out threats like this,” Schewel said. “We have to acknowledge that, but the threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.” 

Schewel says he hopes Durham residents will “lower the temperature” on their anger and focus their political energy towards progressive fights. In Raleigh, he said, the General Assembly is “undermining public education at every turn” by underfunding schools and underpaying teachers. 

“Durham is a city with a widely shared progressive vision,” Schewel said. “As I expressed in the letter I wrote, 20 miles from here in Raleigh in the General Assembly there are all kinds of things going on which are antithetical to the progressive consensus that we share in Durham. We need to be focusing our political energy not on angry attacks on each other but on doing the work that we need to do to get the state policy that we all agree on here in Durham.” 

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top:  Mayor Schewel: “The threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.” File photo.

School board member decries ‘hate and threats’ from teachers

Mike Lee says he has voted with Durham’s teachers consistently during his seven years on the Durham Public Schools board. But after he and other board members voted to reopen school classrooms that have been closed since March 2020, he says, he was barraged with vitriol, bullying and personal threats from teachers.

“After my vote to open up school on March 15, the hatred, the threats to myself and the mention of my children in a few different comments showed me everything I needed to know,” Lee, the board’s vice chair, said at a school board meeting Tuesday. “Because it was all coming from staff. It was all coming from teachers.”

He said he weighed the health concerns of resuming in-person instruction and sought expert advice before casting his vote, but he was still met with accusations that he “wants our teachers to die.”

“In almost every situation, it has been, ‘With the proper protocols, schools can open,’” Lee said. “But having that opinion apparently calls for hate and threats. That’s where we are here in Durham: ‘You disagree with us, you’re dead to me.’”

In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the DPS board reaffirmed an earlier decision to begin bringing students and teachers back into their classrooms on March 15, a year after the schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some board members wanted to postpone the reopening until April 8, to allow more time for teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Teachers became eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24, and the school district has been working with Durham County and Duke Health to vaccinate 1,000 school personnel per week. 

Board member Matt Sears said teachers had been blindsided by the decision to reopen, and he feared that it would undermine the trust that the DPS board has established with Durham teachers. Delaying the reopening would help teachers, he said.

Teachers’ safety

“For me, this is as much about trust with our staff as it is about the safety factor,” Sears said. “I do believe we can open safely relatively soon. When I look at this district and this trust issue, I see a district that has worked for more than a decade to build something special with our staff and with our teachers. We wanted to be different from the top-down districts that we see around North Carolina.”

The back-and-forth over a start date for reopening has caused anguish among both parents and teachers. Many parents were frustrated because they had already cancelled child care after the board originally decided to begin returning to in-person instruction on March 15. 

“I am very disappointed to hear that the board is considering changing the return to school YET AGAIN,” Katie Rudd of Carlton Crossing Drive said in an email comment to the DPS board. “My family was so hopeful to return to school March 15 after nearly a year at home. This is not a game. Parents and children need follow-through on the existing plan, not a political stunt.”

Lee said he made his decision to reopen as both a board member and a parent. He has witnessed firsthand the toll that online learning can have on DPS students because he has a daughter in eighth grade who is “only a frame” of what she used to be. 

“Do I vote against the interest of my child, who I know needs to be in school? I can’t do that,” Lee said. “As a board member, I look across this district, and I see thousands of students and families who are in the same situation that I am.”

A lack of input around kids’ welfare and mental health during conversations about reopening has left Lee concerned that teachers seem to only be prioritizing themselves, he said.

Students’ wellness

“When I met with the teachers before the emergency meeting, not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.” 

Michelle Burton, the president of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) and the librarian at Spring Valley Elementary, said teachers are not prioritizing their health for only their benefit. 

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, so if teachers are not healthy then they can’t come to work, which means they are not educating kids,” Burton said in an interview Saturday. “So that means you have to keep your workforce healthy, in order to educate students in a consistent way.”

Lee said teachers have tried to shame parents away from returning their children to in-person instruction. 

“Threatening families, threatening board members, attacking them for their opinion and their beliefs,” he said. “That is not organizing.”

Lee did not identify any specific teachers or provide details about threats. He did not respond to the 9th Street Journal’s requests for comment. 

Burton said she was disheartened by Lee’s remarks and did not know which teachers he was referring to. 

“The DAE does not condone bullying of our school board members or any elected officials,” Burton said. “But I don’t know which educators that he speaks of, because he was speaking more in a general, broad sense. I will say that educators have a right to advocate for their students, and they have a right to advocate for their working conditions, but it should be done in a respectful manner.”

Sears, Natalie Beyer and Alexandra Valladares voted to postpone reopening until April 8, but the majority decided to continue with the original March 15 plan. Board chair Bettina Umstead cast the deciding vote and said it was “the most challenging decision” she has made in her life.

Preparations for return

Elementary school students will return to class March 15. Middle and high school students will begin returning April 8. 

According to February 25 results of the parent survey about choosing to return their child to in-person schooling or continue with online, 51% of parents said they would remain with virtual learning, 39% of parents said they would return their children to in-person instruction, and 10% did not respond to the survey. 

DPS is providing cloth masks and face shields, disposable surgical and KN95 masks upon request, spokesman Chip Sudderth said. They are implementing physical distancing signage and other floor markings at six-foot intervals, providing frequent handwashing breaks and hand sanitizer, collaborating with the health department on contact tracing, and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day. 

School buses will be disinfected between routes. The staff is being trained on the proper use of personal protective equipment.

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top:  “Not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” DPS board member Mike Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.” 

Parents describe a wrenching year of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as schools prepare to reopen

Mary Barzee’s seven-year-old son, Leo, sits down at their kitchen table to begin another day of online school, a routine he has been stuck in all school year. 

As his teacher starts the lesson, she cannot see that behind the camera her student is crafting paper airplanes and does not have his book open to the correct page. Barzee sits at the kitchen table with Leo, trying to balance working from home and helping her son with online school.  

“This has already gone on for a year, and I am in a pretty desperate situation with my first-grader,” Barzee said in an interview. “He has major Zoom fatigue. He’s regularly crying, and his self-esteem has taken a major hit. It’s a disaster. His teachers are doing the best they can, but they cannot see what’s happening on the other end of the screen.”   

After almost a full year of online instruction, the Durham Public Schools board voted 5-2 Thursday to begin bringing students back into the schools on March 15 — reversing a previous decision to keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year. The vote came in response to Senate Bill 37, which the General Assembly passed this week. If Governor Roy Cooper signs the bill, all North Carolina school districts will be required to offer in-person instruction for all students. 

Classroom chairs are stacked on desks at Jordan High School, awaiting the return of students. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teachers want vaccines

Barzee said she will return Leo to in-person learning at George Watts Elementary School as soon as it is available, because he has struggled with virtual learning. At the same time, she acknowledges the concerns of educators who say they should receive coronavirus vaccines before they are asked to return to school.  

“I want to advocate for vaccines for teachers and other school staff who will be going back to teach in person,” Barzee said. “I have hopes that Durham schools can provide safe in-person learning environments for students and teachers, too.”

Reopening schools could save other families from desperate situations. Kristin Cunningham said she had to quit her full-time job and find part-time work that she could do at home, for less money, just so she could oversee the online instruction of three children who are George Watts Elementary students.

“I felt kind of abandoned by the public school system because so many people rely on that system being in place to care for their children and to be able to work,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I work in health care, and I didn’t have the option of working from home.” 

Parents sacrifice careers

Across the country, parents have had to make career sacrifices so that they can help their children with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden most often has fallen on working mothers, who are nearly three times more likely than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

“We’re just barely hanging on,” Barzee said. “Everything to do with my job is dictated by [my son’s] class schedule.”

Many parents are concerned that their young children are forced to spend too much time in front of their computers, when they should be socializing and playing outside. 

“Virtual instruction is not working for my first grader,” Maria Cattani of Clarendon Street said in an email to the DPS board. “Despite heroic attempts by her and the teacher, every day we end up in tears and tantrums. My kid has heart-wrenching meltdowns about [how] she wants to go back to school. She wants to play, she wants to do puzzles, Legos, build forts.” 

Barzee has opted out of virtual art, music, and P.E. classes for her first-grader and his preschool brother. She homeschools those subjects herself, so her boys won’t have to spend their entire day online. 

“Before [the pandemic], we were extremely cautious about screen time,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in our house. It’s just been really difficult to watch my kids’ attention span diminish.” 

In an email to the DPS board, Pablo Ariel of Clarendon Street described how his six-year-old daughter had a meltdown over her virtual homework. She could not stop sobbing as she repeated over and over, “I just want to go to school. I just want to go to school.” 

“Kids’ voices have been absent from the discussions about reopening,” Ariel said. “Virtual learning for young kids is a failure, and they are suffering.”

For many children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), online instruction is simply not an option. IEPs are special education services tailored to serve children with disabilities or other challenges that might impede their success in school. 

“My son is autistic and will not do Zoom school. So he essentially is receiving no education at all this year from the school system, which I believe to be illegal and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” the parent of a four-year-old boy, who asked to be anonymous to protect the child’s privacy, said in an interview. “I feel disappointed at the lack of creativity or flexibility from the school system. It felt like the needs of neuro-divergent kids were coming in last.”

DPS enrollment has declined

The decision to begin reopening schools could make a crucial difference for enrollment numbers in Durham Public Schools, which lost 2,850 students at the beginning  of the school year. More parents have told DPS officials that they might find other options for their children, such as charter or private schools, unless classroom instruction is restored.

“Virtual school is not working for our child and our family,” Meghan Brown of Inverness Drive said in an email to the DPS board. “We are being forced to change school districts unless Durham changes their mind. Not trying to pressure, but it’s just our reality.”

The DPS website has details of the plan to restore in-person instruction for families that want it. 

K-5 students will attend in-person class every weekday except for “Wellness Wednesday,” which will be remote. Students in grades 6-12 will be divided into three rotating groups so that each group has in-person instruction for two days a week and virtual school for three days. All K-12 students with IEPs have the option for in-person instruction up to four days per week. 

Betting Umstead, the DPS board chair, spoke at Thursday’s Zoom meeting.

The reopening plan includes provisions for personal protective equipment, social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Bettina Umstead, the DPS board chair, said in a news release that students who opt to continue learning from home will help increase the safety for teachers returning to the classrooms.

“If you can and if you are able, it’s important that you keep your students at home so that we can have proper social distancing and support our staff in this plan,” Umstead said. “I want everyone to know that we care deeply, each and every one of us, about every single one of our educators, every single one of our students, and this is not a decision that we make lightly.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top:  Ever since they shifted to online instruction last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham’s empty schools have longed for the return of teachers and students. File photo by Henry Haggart

As state leaders push to reopen schools, some Durham school leaders push back

Durham teachers should have a chance to receive COVID-19 vaccines before they are asked to return to school, two school board members said this week after Gov. Roy Cooper urged school officials to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction. 

“At this time we’re still on the trajectory of continuing to stay remote,” Mike Lee, vice chair of the Durham Public Schools board, said Wednesday. “It’s important that if we are asking our teachers to go back to teach our students, teachers should be put at the forefront of the vaccinations, so that they can have some assurance that they are safe.”

In a letter Tuesday to local school board members and superintendents across the state, Cooper said recent research shows that schools can reopen safely when they follow COVID-19 safety protocols. A Jan. 26  CDC report cited a study of 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin, which found that only seven out of 191 coronavirus cases were the result of in-school transmission. 

“In-person learning is fundamental to children’s development and well-being,” Cooper wrote. “Our public schools provide academic guidance, social and emotional supports, reliable meals, and opportunities for physical activity. Further, there are growing harms to children who are relying solely on remote instruction, including negative impacts on academic and mental health and food insecurity.” 

Cooper, a Democrat, was not alone in pushing school boards to get students back into their classrooms. Catherine Truitt, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, co-signed Cooper’s letter and joined him to make the case at a press conference. 

While Cooper and Truitt said they “strongly recommend” that local school boards provide in-person instruction, the Republican-led Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would require schools to do so.  If the legislation receives final approval next week, it will go to the House for consideration. 

A bottle of disinfectant but no students were present in a Jordan High School hallway this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Infection rate too high

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said administrators are studying the Senate legislation and Cooper’s recommendation, and have not decided whether to recommend changes. Lee said the DPS board will consider Cooper’s letter at its Feb. 11 meeting. 

Most North Carolina school systems are providing in-classroom instruction now for at least some students, or have announced plans to do so by mid-March. The DPS board voted Jan. 7 to continue with remote learning for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.  Board members said then that they didn’t want to consider reopening schools until Durham County’s coronavirus infection rate — the percent of public test results that come back positive — falls below 4% for a two-week period. The county’s infection rate stands this week at 7.9%.

Board member Natalie Beyer said Tuesday that all teachers and staff should have the option to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. DPS employs nearly 6,000 people. School board members have been told that school staff members are not likely to receive COVID-19 vaccinations until April, she said. 

“Student and staff safety has to be paramount as we work on the incredibly complex logistics of reopening,” Beyer said. “I know that [online instruction] is not equivalent to an in-person experience. But with the vaccine so close, it seems even more important for our state leaders to work with the federal government to rapidly accelerate the vaccinations of teachers and other frontline workers.” 

Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders comes to her empty classroom at Jordan High School to teach her veterinary assistance students online. “If Durham allowed us to move up in priority and to be able to get the vaccine before kids came back [to school], I would be for it,” Saunders says.
Teachers’ safety concerns

Happi Adams, an English teacher at Jordan High School, said teachers would rather teach in person but have insisted on online learning because of safety concerns. 

“Instead of legislating when we go back to school, I would like for our legislators to push measures that address our COVID safety concerns — provide funding to improve ventilation in buildings, purchase appropriate amounts of P.P.E., and speed up the distribution of vaccines for teachers. This is what will enable us to teach in-person safely,” Adams said. 

Although teaching virtually is not ideal compared to in-person instruction, she said, it’s better than the inconsistency of switching back and forth between in-person, hybrid and virtual learning. 

“Consistency and predictability are key to quality instruction,” Adams said. “By making the decision to stay [online] through June, we have avoided the chaotic back-and-forth that many districts have experienced and eased the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Teachers and schools have been able to focus on improving virtual learning.” 

Cooper said local school leaders should follow safety protocols outlined in the state’s Strong Schools Public Health Toolkit, which describes measures including adequate community testing, PPE, disinfecting, masking and more. 

DPS board member Matt Sears said state leaders should let Durham and other local school boards decide whether in-classroom instruction is safe.

“I was glad to hear Gov. Cooper talk about local control and local decision-making,” Sears said. “If the legislation that comes forward does not include that, my hope is that he would veto that legislation.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders leading class in her empty classroom this week at Jordan High School. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Altered but open: Durham Farmers’ Market still connects vendors and patrons

Nearly every Saturday morning since 2007, Durham Farmers’ Market transformed Durham Central Park.

Usually, vendors rolled into Central Park Pavilion early, 6 or 7 a.m.  From vans, trucks and cars they unloaded tents, tables and stands to display squashes, greens, breads, jewelry and more local fare. By 8 a.m. customers arrived, quickly spawning a crowded mass that mingled, dashed and clumped, like ants navigating their mound. 

That charming, chaotic ritual came to an abrupt end on Saturday, March 21. No vendors, no shoppers until May.

In between, the market had to overcome a turnover in its leadership and hatch a new COVID-style way of doing business.

Despite significant changes, the market remains a place where people connect.

“It just feels really important to be here,” said Izzy Pezzulo, a vendor for Red Trail Grains. “Not only to be making the money that you need to continue farming, but also to just show up for the community and feed people in a way that feels safer to them.”

Durham Farmers’ Market ambassador Anna Beck holds a sign at the entrance of the market this fall. Photo by Henry Haggart

Closing

When pandemic-related shutdown orders started in Durham, Susan Sink, market manager at the time, was communicating with Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson about spacing proposals to keep the market open. She explained that every item would be pre-packaged and vendors would be spaced 20 feet apart, she said.

But city officials made the decision early in the pandemic to close all city-owned facilities built for groups or gatherings. Sink was told that the city owns Durham Central Park where the Durham Farmers’ Market takes place and Mayor Steve Schewel had made clear the farmers’ market had to close to protect public health, she said. 

There was no market for the next six weeks. 

“We felt that we needed to make sure that we weren’t drawing this huge crowd until there were safety protocols in place,” Schewel said. 

Signs posted around the market encourage visitors to look but not touch while shopping. Photo by Henry Haggart

To reopen, Sink had weekly phone calls with officials to discuss new regulations. There was a large group call between the Farmers’ Market staff and vendors too. Establishing long term changes in market operations in March was difficult, because no one was sure how long the pandemic would last. 

“I do think the biggest challenge was mindset,” Sink said. “People did not believe how lethal the virus could be. And no one believed the situation would last so long, so they wanted easy stopgaps and not long-term marketing and distribution solutions.”

Jack Pleasant, president of the Farmers’ Market board of directors, went from attending monthly meetings about the market to spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to get it reopened. 

“We were dealing with things that were flying every day in different directions,” Pleasant said. 

To add to the complexity, some staff left. Angel Woodrum left her assistant market manager job because she was worried about her safety at work, Pleasant said. Sink stayed on as manager until May and helped with the reopening, but also decided to leave.

Emily-Kate Hannapel, a former assistant market manager who was working as an interior designer, volunteered to manage the market for two months during the search for a new manager.

“It was pretty scary because from one perspective, you’re trying to do everything that you’ve been told to create a safe space and a safe event. But especially in May, there was still so much that we didn’t know about the virus and how it spread,” Hannapel said. 

Despite the uncertainty, Hannapel said she felt the responsibility to try to make sure the Durham Farmers’ Market operated through the pandemic. 

“The whole point of having a really strong local food system is so that it can step up and work in moments of crisis,” she said. “We have all of these farmers who are growing food and we have people who want food and who are nervous about going into grocery stores. It just felt like this moment that our local food system, which is so strong here, really had to step up to meet that demand.”

In July, board members appointed Michelle Greene the new market manager. She had been a loyal customer of the farmers’ market for ten years, but had never worked on the management side. Catherine Rudolph was hired in August to replace Angel Woodrum as assistant market manager.

“I knew the atmosphere, but you think you know how a market works just by going and visiting, but you don’t,” Greene said. “It’s a very different world being a visitor compared to managing.”

A handwashing station stands near the entrance of the market within sight of pandemic shopping rules. Photo by Henry Haggart

Opening

Before COVID-19, the market was also open on Wednesdays from April until October. On May 2, only the Saturday market reopened to the public. 

It looks a lot different.

The market is now “one-way,” with one entrance and one exit. Everyone must travel the vendors’ loop in the same direction to avoid getting dangerously close to anyone else.

Customers must remain six feet apart. They are not supposed to touch products, but must wait for a vendor to help. There is a hand-washing station at the front of the market, and volunteers are posted to make sure customers are aware of the rules. 

Vendor stands stand at least 10 feet apart. Because of that, the market can now accommodate up to 40 vendors; in the past it hosted around 60.

Reducing the number of vendors from 40 to 60 happened naturally, because a number of vendors, such as Elodie Farms, chose to conduct their sales through online, contactless pick-up instead of through the farmers’ market, according to Greene. 

“We make a map every week for what the market will look like that weekend so that the customers have a guide for how they can get in and out the fastest, if they do feel that they want to run in and run out,” said Greene.

The faster-paced approach makes the farmers’ market a safer shopping experience, but can also make it more difficult for customers to connect the way they used to.

“I come to the farmers’ market almost every Saturday because it’s my sense of community, it’s a place to touch in with where I live,” customer Meredith Emmett said. “It’s just harder to talk to people and recognize people. I did just see someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time but it doesn’t have the same spirit of connection. It feels more like I’m grocery shopping as opposed to coming to the town square.” 

Red Trail Grains vendor Izzy Pezzulo said she cherishes connections she makes at the market in spite of masks and distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

Despite the market’s redesign for social distancing, vendors say that it still offers them some much-needed social interaction.

“Despite the circumstances,” the market is “really life giving,” said Pezzulo, the Red Tail Grains vendor

Pezzulo formed a friendship from the market with Ahbi Bügger, who manages the stand for Celebrity Dairy, when they began trading their products with each other.

Bügger had been farming in Peru and Brazil for six months when she noticed other people scrambling to find flights back to the United States. She realized she needed to leave, so she boarded a flight to North Carolina, where her parents live, and moved to Pittsboro, which is home to the Celebrity Dairy Farm.

“When I first started, people would come up, buy the cheese and leave — barely a hello was even said,” Bügger said. “And now, there are some lines and some waiting because people stay a minute.” 

Bügger still prioritizes a safe shopping experience, but has appreciated that her customers are willing to spend some more time when they stop at her stand. 

“The fear is subsiding a little bit, which I think is awesome,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant about safety, but it also makes my heart feel a little warm that people are really committed to supporting us and committed to connecting with the farmers that sell their products and intentionally making connections.”

Jennifer Tolliver, a farmer at Botanist and Barrel who manages their stand on Saturdays, decided that leaving her house for the market was worth the risk because of the mental health benefits. 

“We have medical professionals in the family, and we talked to them about it and everyone seems pretty much on the same page as far as the fact that being outdoors, socially distanced, plus masks — it’s a pretty low risk,” she said. 

The market is expected to remain open through the winter season, still outdoors in Durham Central Park. Current market restrictions will likely remain. 

“I do have a call with the Durham County extension office every few weeks and we go over what’s new. The winter has different things that may come,” Greene said. “We used to think we could predict things and now we don’t.”

9th Street reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: The pandemic has altered foot traffic and much more at Durham Farmers’ Market. What once was free form is now tightly choreographed. Photo by Henry Haggart 

Durham cancels trick or treating. Will crowds obey?

COVID-19 has claimed its next holiday victim in Durham: trick or treating on Halloween.

Donning a witch’s hat, Steve Schewel announced last week that Oct. 31 celebrations must look different this year to keep Durham residents safe.

Durham Parks and Recreation has created stand-in events to make sure this spooky season does not get overlooked, Schewel promised. 

“Durham residents have done a great job suppressing the coronavirus, wearing masks and social distancing and washing hands,” Schewel said during a press conference posted online. “The last thing that we want is for Halloween to become a super spreader event in our community.”

With North Carolina reporting over 230,000 cases, Durham County currently accounts for less than 1% of the cases in the state, but there have still been over 8,000 reported cases and 97 reported deaths here, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Schewel said he spoke with leaders of neighborhood that usually get the most trick-or-treaters, other North Carolina mayors and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Mandy Cohen, to explore how to handle Halloween during this pandemic. 

Outdoor mass gatherings are still limited to 50 people, meaning that the usual masses of costumed trick-or-treaters can not flood the streets. 

Club Boulevard in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood usually attracts so many trick-or-treaters along one mile that the city usually dispatches traffic cones and police officers to protect the masses of children. They will not do so this year, to emphasize that trick-or-treaters should not flood Club Boulevard or nearby streets accustomed to big crowds. 

The number of Halloween candy pieces handed out at two homes on West Club Boulevard each Halloween has long exceeded 1,000. Stormy weather accounts for dips in 2011 and 2019. Chart courtesy of Dot Doyle

Normally people there leave their porch lights on to welcome candy seekers, but this year Schewel is urging residents to turn them off.  “We know we can’t make this all work through enforcement, we have to make it work through our community voluntarily complying,” Schewel said.

But can it?

Tom Miller, who has lived in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood since 1983, trusts that people there are committed to discouraging the 1,000-plus trick-or-treaters they have welcomed in years past.

He does worry, however, that not everyone will be aware of the new situation and still come to the neighborhood. 

“People in my neighborhood do not want to spread COVID or be responsible for anyone becoming ill,” Miller said. “I won’t be surprised if people don’t get the word and come here. I’m worried about that. But I don’t believe that you’re going to see people on the street setting up this year as normal.”

Watts Hospital-Hillandale residents, who in the past have possibly drawn the most trick-or-treaters citywide, will post signs around their neighborhood about a week before to make the message explicit.  

“I urge other of the busiest Halloween neighborhoods to do the same,” said Schewel, who lives on leafy Club Boulevard near Ninth Street. He estimated more than 1,500 trick-or-treaters from Durham and out of town visited last year for candy. 

Although residents hate to post signs to deter one of their favorite holiday traditions, this year’s restrictions are necessary, said Dot Doyle, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association president. 

“If we have 1,500 children and their grown ups, that’s four or maybe five thousand people on the sidewalks in five blocks, which is just not possible with social distancing,” Doyle said, adding that she hopes she and neighbors can welcome everyone back in 2021.

Despite plans to discourage trick or treating in Watts Hospital-Hillandale, some yards are already gussied up for the holiday. Photo by Henry Haggart

Residents of Monmouth Avenue in Trinity Park, another popular destination, have found an alternative way to hand out treats this year. They plan to assemble candy bags they’ll donate to the Durham Children’s Initiative.

“On my block of Monmouth Avenue, we get over 1,300 kids,” said Pela Gereffi, who personally handed out 1,178 pieces of candy last year. “But we decided to go by what the mayor had stated — we’re not going to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to turn off our lights.” 

“Trunk or treat” events of the past, where large groups of children gather in church parking lots to move from car to car, are also too dangerous for this year, Schewel said. Faith communities can celebrate through touchless drive-thru trick or treating in church parking lots.

The City of Durham has posted suggestions online too, down to wardrobe coaching. “Costume masks should not be placed over a cloth mask as it will make it hard to breathe. Instead, it is suggested that participants use a Halloween-themed cloth mask over the costume mask,” the post says.

“If your family wants to trick or treat with a few other families, this is encouraged, as long as you pre-arrange the visits, the groups are small and outside only, everyone is wearing a Covid-safe mask and the transmission of treats is touchless,” Schewel said.

Durham Parks and Recreation All Hallows’ Eve events will be open to the public, but to limit crowd sizes, pre-registration is required. Among the events:

Fright Night” is a drive-thru event that will be held on Oct. 23 from 6-9 p.m. at Pineywood Park. Participants are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes and participate in a safe, drive-thru trunk or treat.  There will also be a haunted drive-thru trail, and a socially distanced viewing of “James and the Giant Peach” on the lawn. This event will cost $1.50 for city residents and $6.50 for non-city residents. 

“Vamp It Up” will be a virtual Zoom event hosted on Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Participants can pick up supplies beforehand on Oct. 23 at the Edison Johnson Recreation center. Supplies will include an arts and crafts activity, candy, and a snack such as pretzels or cheez-its. Participants are encouraged to dress in their Halloween costumes for the virtual event. 

The night before Halloween, the Holton Career and Resource center will host a drive-thru event “Trick or Treat, Stay Six Feet.” Participants will need to pre-register for a time slot within 6-8 p.m. Kids will drive to the parking lot and remain in their vehicles to receive free, contactless candy and treats. 

The 32nd annual “Hallow-Eno” will still take place this year, on Oct. 31 from 6-9 p.m. Participants will drive-thru West Point on the Eno’s historic area, and remain in their car to observe the Halloween decorations along the historic park loop, receive goody bags and take-home activities, and enjoy live Halloween music. 

The “Full Moon Fever Bike Ride – Halloween/Blue Moon Ride” will take place on Oct. 31 too from 7:30-10:30 p.m. A community trail watch group will have two start times and locations. The first ride will be approximately 32 miles, and the second ride will be approximately 16 miles. 

“Dias de los Muertos,” a virtual event to celebrate Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, happens Nov. 2 from 10-11 a.m.

“Halloween will be different this year, but Halloween will still be wonderful this year,” Schewel predicted. “I urge all of our residents to be as creative as you can.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: During this presidential election year, Donald Trump and Joe Biden masks are among the offerings at Spirit Halloween on Fayetteville Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

What has Durham learned from last year’s fatal gas pipeline explosion?

Nearly a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in downtown Durham, killing two people, injuring 25 others and damaging more than a dozen buildings. 

One of those buildings was Saint James Seafood. When the pipeline blew up, the restaurant’s glass windows shattered and gold chandeliers crashed to the ground. 

After 10 months of work repairing the building and worrying what the future held for him and his employees, Saint James owner Matt Kelly reopened the restaurant in late January.

He held a dinner for first responders who were there the day of the explosion to thank them for risking their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask more of what that group of people did that day,” he said. 

Those responders say they’ve learned from the disaster and have outlined ways to help prevent it from happening again. 

In November, Durham County Emergency Management released a “Lessons Learned Report” about policy changes that have taken place since the deadly explosion, including improving communication with the public and other agencies in times of disaster and educating the public and responders about natural gas as downtown Durham grows. 

“The way that Durham’s building up, it is kind of changing our way of thinking, knowing that we’ve got a huge shift in population to downtown and everything that goes along with that,” said Jim Groves, the city’s emergency management director. 

Natural gas pipeline leaks and incidents are fairly common throughout the U.S.; most are caused by excavation work like digging utility lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. North Carolina has had 44 natural gas-related pipeline incidents in the past 20 years, but April’s explosion were the first deaths ever recorded in the state.

While laying fiber optic cable on North Duke Street on the morning of April 10, 2019, Optic Cable Technology hit a ¾-inch natural gas pipeline distribution line at the intersection of North Duke Street and West Main Street, causing a gas leak. 

About an hour later, the pipeline exploded, nearly leveling the block. Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee was killed, and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker, died two weeks later. 

A Durham fire department investigation found that the explosion was an accident. But the contractors working that day faced some responsibility: The North Carolina Labor Department fined Optic Cable Technology $7,000 for failing to immediately contact authorities after damaging the line, and another $7,000 for failing to dig a test hole to determine where the pipeline was.

The agency also fined PS Splicing $2,100 for failing “to perform frequent and regular inspections of the site” and PSNC Energy, a subsidiary utility of Dominion Energy, $5,000 for “ineffective response procedures” that exposed a first responder to fire and hazards. The energy company disagreed with the state’s findings. 

The fire department’s report stated that communication systems between city, county, and state agencies about such incidents need to improve. Groves said that on the day of the explosion, Durham public information officials were distracted by the city’s 150th anniversary celebration party downtown, which slowed communication with the public. The delay in reporting the leak made response difficult and more dangerous. 

City and county managers have also developed an initiative for a joint crisis communication plan to more efficiently and uniformly release emergency information to the public through social media and public information officers—a process that was too chaotic on the day of the explosion, according to officials. 

After 10 months of repairs from the natural gas pipeline explosion, Saint James Seafood reopened in January. Photo by Corey Pilson

Still, city policies for the supervision of contractors working near natural gas lines “haven’t changed” since the explosion, said Durham city manager Thomas Bonfield. The state government has jurisdiction over underground development like laying fiber, so the county and city have no authority to send inspectors to monitor work more closely, he said. 

Groves said he wants Durham residents to feel safe downtown, because although natural gas lines can burst or leak, they can typically be prevented if they are reported immediately. 

He said if people “smell [gas], or if they hear a loud hissing, when they call 911 and law enforcement gets there and they give them directions to evacuate — listen and take immediate action.”  

Durham Fire Department chief Robert Zoldos said the fire department came up with 11 points of improvement since the explosion, including more training for hazardous materials situations like the pipeline leak and assigning full time drivers to the hazmat units.

The department also reopened a downtown fire department unit, Rescue One, which specializes in rescues above general expectations of a firefighter, including hazardous material cases. 

“All of those things will provide us with a little better response than we had before—not perfect, but much better than we had,” Zoldos said.  

The Lessons Learned Report offered some closure to Saint James and other businesses. 

“When that came out it was definitely a relief that there was a direction of some blame and that what happened was very thoroughly investigated,” Kelly said.

The block remains quiet since several businesses in the area are still closed. The United Way of the Greater Triangle is hosting fundraisers and looking for grants to help businesses get back on their feet. Kelly said he and others are optimistic the city can keep moving forward.

“We encourage people to come back,” Kelly said. “The Brightleaf area really just wants normalcy, and we’re waiting for our friends next door, Torero’s, to reopen, and get this block back in business.” 

Top Photo: Emergency responders on the scene of the April 10, 2019 fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in downtown Durham. Photo by Katie Nelson

Gunn concedes, says he ‘stood tall’ against ‘political machine’

Joshua Gunn conceded Wednesday, clearing the way for three incumbents to return to the City Council. Although there had been questions about a possible recount because he trailed Javiera Caballero by just 395 votes, Gunn wrote a Facebook post congratulating her and fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson.  

Let’s be clear, while we may not have gained a seat on City Council, this is a victory,” he wrote. “It was 3 against 1. Three incumbents in a bloc, versus one candidate. What we overcame is incredible. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, we stood tall against the largest political machine in Durham, and without the support of many of Durham’s most influential political figures, and we came within 395 votes of winning a seat on Durham City Council!”

Gunn lost to Caballero by just 395 votes.

 

The reelection of Johnson, Reece, and Caballero won’t be certified until the Durham County Board of Elections meets next week.