By Richard Sullins |

In what may well have been their only unanimous vote so far relating to the COVID pandemic, the Lee County Board of Education voted on March 8 to make masks optional on school buses, effectively ending the debate – at least for now – over the wearing of face coverings that has raged for the past eight months.

At a special called meeting of the board on February 17, the school board voted to make masks optional for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors at each of the district’s campuses unless or until circumstances changes. But a federal ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation prevented the board from extending the optional mask ruling to students on school buses as well.

The federal DOT amended their rule on March 7, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the continued decline in the Omicron variant of the virus, plus the increasing numbers of students who have received the COVID-19 vaccinations, have increased the safety factor to a point where scientists now feel that students can be safe on buses with or without wearing a mask.

The change in Lee County went into effect immediately and applies to athletic buses as well as yellow buses that pick-up children each day from their homes.

Scientists are quick to point out that Omicron will almost certainly not be the last variant of the original virus to impact the country and a return to provisions designed to protect the health of the community, including masking, is always a possibility. But for now, there is reason to be optimistic with the official arrival of spring just days away.

COVID’s impact on learning

It has been two years now since North Carolina’s students were sent home as the COVID-19 virus arrived in the Tar Heel State. By the time the second week of virtual learning began, cases were being reported all across the state.

It was late December of that year before the vaccines developed at a record pace during the Trump administration became available, and another year before the Biden administration’s plan to get the vaccines out to as many people as possible had reached just over 50 percent of the populace. By that time, elementary students were being allowed to return to Lee County classrooms, followed shortly thereafter by middle schoolers and high school students.

For almost a year, students here and across the nation learned virtually by means of a computer and an internet connection. There has been almost unanimous agreement to this point that the impact of COVID would also result in heavy collateral damage to student learning, and that has been borne out in recent national studies.

The McKinsey and Company think tank based in Silicon Valley, for example, recently found that the impact of the pandemic on student learning in grades K-12 was significant, “leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. The pandemic widened pre-existing opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.”

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction recently released data from a study of its own within the state, and Lee County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Andy Bryan presented the results of that study to the school board on March 8.

The study found “on average, students made less progress during the pandemic than they did in previous years” but “most students continued to progress during the pandemic but at a slower pace than they would have done otherwise.”

The DPI study is unique in the sense that in addition to data reported during and after the onset of the pandemic, it also provides a window into what Bryan called “a live look at what is being done to offset its impact.”

The negative impacts were seen in every subject, from reading, math, and science, with the exception of English II, where end-of-grade testing actually showed a slight improvement. The drops in Lee County scores, though, were nearly identical to those seen across the state, a strong indicator that the declines being observed here are common to those in other school systems.

Just as important, the DPI numbers indicate students made very significant gains in catching up in their studies between the start of fall 2021 and the beginning of the 2022 term in January. Bryan said this is because students, teachers, and staff returned to the classroom in August motivated and ready to learn, and the study shows the numbers of students who are either on their grade level or 1, 2, or 3 grade levels below mirrors very closely the state averages for those numbers in reading and math.

Another way to get a grasp of how things are today among students two years after their educational worlds were turned upside down as the COVID pandemic began is to look at the percentages scoring as having achieved proficiency in a subject in the end-of-grade tests and compare that to previous years.

DPI provided this comparison among Lee County students in 2020-21 with others who had taken the end-of-grade tests in 2018-19, the last full year when students were in school. Here’s a look at how the percentages of students who achieved proficiency compared in eight subjects and levels:

Reading Grade 3 – 54.8% (18-19) 35.3% (20-21)

Reading Grade 5 – 51.4% (18-19) 33.0% (20-21)

Math Grade 4 – 55.5% (18-19) 25.9% (20-21)

Math Grade 5 – 59.9% (18-19) 32.8% (20-21)

Reading Grade 7 – 51.2% (18-19) 39.6% (20-21)

Reading Grade 8 – 49.2% (18-19) 38.9% (20-21)

Biology – 49.5% (18-19) 38.1% (20-21)

English II – 47.9% (18-19) 49.7% (20-21)

Bryan said although the scores were not as bad as some thought they might have been, the district has deployed a number of different strategies that are moving the needle ahead in terms of results for the county’s students. Those programs are being paid for by an infusion of federal and state COVID relief dollars that have been coming into the county over the past two years.

The actual amount of those funds, however, still remains a point of some contention. Postings on social media have indicated the district’s share of COVID relief funding could be as high as $35 million, but Bryan presented a spreadsheet showing the number was actually closer to $29 million. He did, however, promise the district’s finance department would give the issue a closer look and report back to the public in April.

To this point, LCS has spent approximately $12 million of the $29 million on projects that include retention bonuses for school board employees; new hires in school nurses, social workers, and counselors; creation of tutoring positions through ESSER funds; public health supplies; and expanded summer programs that will help students catch up and get back on track.

Republican Board Chair Sandra Bowen asked Bryan “why haven’t we exhausted the remaining $17 million of COVID relief dollars yet?”

It’s a question board member and fellow Republican Sherry Lynn Womack also asked, noting that some districts were reporting 80 percent to even 100 percent of their funds expended, while Lee County is currently at less than half that.

“We are trying our very best to be responsible with a very large amount of money,” he responded. “We don’t know what’s coming down the road. I don’t think there is a person in this room that doesn’t hope that COVID is gone. But if the last 2 years have taught us anything at all, it is that we had better be ready for anything. We hope that we are emerging into a more normal period. But we might have said the same thing after Delta died down last summer. Then came Omicron with infectious rates higher than anything we had seen before. The simple answer is that we don’t know what’s coming. But we need to do everything, everything we can to keep our kids in school. We have to be ready to address whatever it is that could be coming.”

Leave policy changed

In another action, the board approved a change in its leave policy that will now allow teachers to take their leave in units of hours instead of full days or half-days. The change is aimed at making it easier for teachers to keep up with their personal responsibilities without having large negative impacts on their leave balances and is another step at making it easier for the county to keep teachers in the classroom.