By Richard Sullins |

In the wake of adjustments to the state’s COVID-19 Public Health Toolkit, the Lee County Board of Education will meet for a second straight week on Thursday, February 17 to consider changes to the district’s masking and COVID-related policies.

The board met on Feb. 8 and made no changes at that time to its policy of requiring masks for students, teachers, staff, and visitors until the county has gone for 10 consecutive days at a “moderate” level of transmission. But the new rules could mean that nurses and school staff will be able to shift their focus away from the intense work of contact tracing to instead focusing on students and staff who are symptomatic.

Because it is not a regular monthly meeting and is called instead to deal with a specific subject, there will be no public comment period.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said Thursday that revisions to the toolkit were coming soon, and they were announced later that day by new Secretary of Health and Human Services Kody Kinsley.

“I’m pleased and hopeful that we can get back to normal lives with the understanding that we’re all going to need to do things to make sure that we protect ourselves, dependent upon the risk,” Cooper said.

The changes are the most significant that local school boards have seen since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago and could be the signal that some boards have been waiting for that it is okay to modify the strategies employed since 2020. Updates to the toolkit will go into effect on February 21.

The new guidelines will end the contact tracing of individual cases. With the wide spread of the Omicron variant, state officials say it is less critical to trace the source of individual infections. The increasing availability of at-home testing kits and the number of persons who have tested positive for the virus but remained asymptomatic was also a factor in ending contact tracing.

The guidelines also make a significant change in rules regarding quarantining. Students and teachers who have been exposed to COVID but who do not exhibit symptoms will no longer have to stay home before they can return to school. Previously, anyone who has possibly been exposed has been required to stay home for five days or more to see if symptoms developed. Although exclusion from school is no longer required following a potential exposure, a notification to the parents is recommended.

The toolkit changes also redefine what “fully vaccinated” means. According to the new guidelines, persons who are fully vaccinated must have had two shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines plus the booster, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine plus a booster.

However, the new toolkit guidelines make no adjustments to guidance given almost two years ago regarding masking and face coverings. Instead, it continues to recommend universal face covering requirements in school systems located in a county with high or substantial levels of transmission. Lee County, as well as the remaining 99 counties in the state, remains at a high level of COVID transmission.

There continues to be criticism in some quarters of the changing guidelines. But scientists say that any such confusion is the result of the incredible speed of the virus’ development, now just a little over two years into its history. Those who study diseases are constantly applying the scientific method of observing a problem, creating a theory and putting it to a test, and then observing the results and refining the hypothesis. Such a process sometimes results in ideas that are later modified or even disproved as more information is obtained.

Kinsley said keeping kids in school remains a top priority.

“As we have done throughout the pandemic, we evaluate which tools are most effective to protect students and staff. This is the right approach for this point in the pandemic and includes flexibility for local schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions,” he said.

The special called meeting of the Board begins at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Jimmy L. Love, Sr. Board Room in the Core Curricular Building of Lee County High School.