By Richard Sullins |

After hearing from two mothers who spoke during the Lee County Board of Education meeting on May 10 that some parents were being prevented from entering their child’s school because of restrictions put into place two years ago at the start of the COVID pandemic, Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan acted early the following morning to make certain that there was no confusion that those restrictions had been lifted.

“Most schools had already lifted visitation restrictions, but I sent out an email to principals Wednesday morning clarifying that there should no longer be any COVID visitation restrictions in place,” Bryan told The Rant.

Bryan said the restrictions were not the result of any action taken by the Board of Education, but rather as a result of directives issued at the beginning of the pandemic by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

About 25 parents attended the meeting to show their concern for not being able to visit their children in the schools they attend, but several said after the meeting they were afraid to speak their minds because they feared retaliation against their child.

Ariola Hassan, who lives in Holly Springs but whose son lives in Lee County with his father, asked the board during the public comments period of the meeting “why am I not able to come into my son’s school in Lee County? I want to work hand in hand with the teachers who love their students, but you have to make that happen.”

“What is the meaning of this policy?” she continued. “If we can’t come into the schools to talk to you, where are the plans and the ideas? I want to be able to be active inside my son’s school to assist his teachers, but it’s up to you to make that possible now that the worst of the pandemic has passed.”

Another speaker was Tommi McCurry of Sanford, who said keeping parents out of schools, despite the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, was simply government overreach by the Board of Education that made them “knowingly guilty of an abuse of power.”

McCurry said parents don’t know what is being taught in the district’s schools, although she claimed that students are being sexually groomed and exposed to child pornography there. She said that because of their child’s age, some parents have never been allowed to visit in their child’s school.

“What’s going on in there that you don’t want parents to see? I’ll tell you what it is. It is kids being jabbed by teachers with a vaccine that doesn’t work,” she said. “If parents can’t go into those buildings, then kids shouldn’t go into them either.”

Republican Sherry Womack was the only member of the board to comment on the matter. In a written statement to The Rant, Womack said “I had only heard complaints from parents taking their children to school for the first day. More specifically, the first graders on their first day with parents complaining they wanted to see the classroom and take pictures. A few were very uncomfortable ‘dropping off their child at the curb’ and many simply did not want to miss this precious milestone of their child.”

“I immediately reported it to the Superintendent, and he reassured me that he would ‘look into it.’ You are correct – that was the first I knew ANYTHING about the CONTINUED restrictions, particularly after the masks were voted optional,” she went on. “I have attended various schools and actually seen parents with their children, so, yes, the complaints came as a huge surprise. Parents and care providers are vital for a student to succeed and should always be welcome in our public schools.”

COVID funding update

In relation to the COVID outbreak, Bryan presented an update on the status of the $36,509,091 in federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief) COVID relief funding Lee County Schools has received since March 2020. Of that total amount, just over half ($19,411,769.61) has been spent. $16,952,326.17 remains to be spent and another $144,995.22 has been encumbered, meaning purchase orders have been issued for those amounts, but no checks have yet been written.

The bulk of the remaining funds will expire at the end of September 2024 and Bryan is confident that the district will be able to expend all the COVID relief dollars by that time. Of the roughly $17 million in unspent funds, about $9.8 million are dollars that will expire on September 30 during the final year of federal funding. The only funds spent so far from that last year’s allocation was the $591,289.24 spent for teacher bonuses paid last fall.

The board approved a listing of $2,100,300 in capital expenditures from COVID relief funds during the meeting, including $250,000 in upgrades to Trane air controls systems at nine County schools and repairs or upgrades to HVAC units at eight schools. The list includes expenditures of $360,000 to replace valves for the air handler and fan coils at Broadway, Deep River, Tramway, and BT Bullock elementary schools that are almost 25 years old.

The two biggest ticket items are $640,000 for new security entrances at the three middle and two high schools, and $400,000 for the replacement of the chiller at Lee County High School.

Last review of mask policy for 2021-22

The last day for students on the traditional calendar this year is June 9, and as the board revisited its policy for face coverings for May 10 through its next meeting on June 14, this review of the policy would effectively be its last for the 2021-22 school year for traditional students.

In August 2021, as the Delta variant was surging through the county, more than 100 parents crowded into the board’s meeting room at Lee County High School to listen as the school board considered what the policy should be as the school year began. Nine months later, the issue hardly drew more than a yawn as the board voted unanimously to continue its policy of allowing masks to be voluntary among those who felt the need for the protection they provide.

The last wave of COVID-19, the Omicron variant, was both the strongest and the shortest. But it is another characteristic of Omicron that has scientists and microbiologists worried as the summer is set to begin. Starting with the Omicron variant, the latest mutations of the virus have shown that it is becoming smarter and more able to adapt to the vaccines scientists have developed and create their own defenses to them. That means that even those who have been vaccinated and boosted multiple times are still vulnerable to being infected multiple times by the virus.

Last summer, the Delta wave began just as students were finishing up their end-of-the-year exams as the school year came to a close. As they prepare to hit the pools and beaches this summer, yet another subvariant – BA.2.12.1 – is beginning to sweep the country and could force school boards into another tough decision as classes start again in the fall.

Already, this subvariant accounts for 40 percent of all COVID infections taking place in Lee County this week. The number of cases reported within the county is again on the increase, with 147 cases recorded within the past two weeks. Ninety of the state’s 100 counties remain in the “low” risk category, but there is a cluster of eight counties in the central portion of the state, including Lee, that have risen to a level of “medium” risk. These include Lee, Alamance, Chatham, Franklin, Orange, Durham, and Harnett.