By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education voted Tuesday to maintain the masking mandate for students, teachers, staff, and visitors to county schools for at least the next two weeks –  but an end to the requirement could be in sight if present trends regarding COVID-19 transmission hold.

The board voted 4-2 to leave the current masking mandate in place until 10 consecutive calendar days of “moderate-level” transmission of the COVID virus have been recorded in the county before the next meeting on December 14. If that goal can be reached, a special called meeting would be convened to review the situation and consider further action. Members Pamela Sutton and Christine Hilliard cast the dissenting votes.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan reported advice from the ABC Collaborative, a program based at Duke University that pairs scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19. Bryan said that the most current counsel from the Collaborative is to continue the mask mandate, although it also discussed potential relaxation of the mandates based on lower levels of community transmission.

Although there was initially discussion about aiming to end the mandate with the conclusion of the first semester after the December meeting, Sutton suggested using the community transmission model as a benchmark to achieve so that the system could get closer to an actual calendar date for masking to end. Member Patrick Kelly made a motion to aim for 10 consecutive calendar days when the level of community transmission goes no higher than “moderate,” a motion which subsequently passed.

According to a law passed this summer by the North Carolina General Assembly, school boards are required to revisit requirements for face coverings at least once a month until the law is changed. The timeline adopted by the school board means that a re-evaluation of the mandate could come as early as November 21 or as late as December 14.

Bus drivers to get increase

The board adopted a revision to the pay schedule for its bus drivers. The plan would adjust the pay amounts of bus drivers employed for 10 months per year, raising the per hour rate for a beginning bus driver or substitute from $12.92 to $16. The most experienced drivers would see their hourly pay jump from $16.62 to $17.90 under the plan, which was approved earlier this month by the board’s Finance Committee. The total cost of these increases is approximately $220,000 and will come from the district’s transportation budget. Finance Committee Chair Sutton called the plan “the most significant pay increase they have had in years.”

The bus driver pay hike comes a month after the board adopted a separate plan to provide a one time bonus for teachers and staff. Under that plan, all permanent and full-time employees, both certified and classified, who are employed as of November 15, 2021, will receive a $2,000 bonus. All permanent part-time employees, again both certified and classified, who work less than six hours per day and who are employed as of November 15 will receive a prorated bonus.

Contracted employees, as well as those who submit their resignation from the school system on or before November 15, will not receive the bonus. In addition to the $2,000 bonus, the district will also provide a one-time longevity bonus, with the amount determined by the date of the employee’s most recent hire. The longevity bonuses range from $250 for zero to four years of service with the district to as much as $3,000 for the 35 employees who have worked with Lee County Schools for 25 years or more. The combined maximum amount of the bonus any employee could receive is $5,000.

Superintendent’s contract renewed until 2024

In a separate action, the board voted 5-1 to renew the employment contract for Dr. Bryan through June 30, 2024. Sutton cast the only dissenting vote (member Sherry Womack was absent).

An item labeled “Superintendent’s Informal Evaluation” had been placed on the board’s agenda during its closed session, in addition to other personnel items. After a 70-minute deliberation, Dr. Lynn Smith made the motion to extend Bryan’s contract for another 32 months with no other changes made to its terms and conditions.

The board will hold its annual organizational meeting on December 14 and elect officers for the coming year. Chair Sandra Bowen, noting that new officers may be chosen, said “this may well be my last night as the chair of this board, as we enter into reorganization every December. And before I leave this chair, if that is the case, I wanted to say what a distinct honor it has been to serve as the chair of this board and to serve with these amazing people. Each person up here has a heart for students and a heart for education, and it has been my pleasure to serve.”

Bowen is one of three Republicans on the Board. Following Hilliard’s decision in September to switch parties, Democrats now hold the remaining four seats.