By Richard Sullins | [email protected]
In what may well have been their only unanimous vote yet regarding the COVID pandemic, the Lee County School Board voted March 8 to make masks optional on school buses, ending the debate — at least. for now – on the wearing of face coverings that has been raging for the past eight months.
At a special convened meeting of the board on February 17, the school board voted to make masks optional for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors to each of the District’s campuses, unless or until circumstances change. But a federal decision by the US Department of Transportation prevented the board from extending the mask-optional rule to school bus students as well.
The federal DOT changed its rule on March 7, following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the continued decline of the Omicron variant of the virus, along with the growing number of students who have received COVID-19 vaccines , have increased the safety factor to such an extent that scientists now believe students can be safe on buses with or without a mask.
The change in Lee County took effect immediately and applies to sports buses as well as yellow buses that pick up children from their homes daily.
Scientists are quick to point out that Omicron will 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 still a possibility. But for now, there is reason to be optimistic with the official arrival of spring in a few days.
The impact of COVID on learning
It has now been two years since college students in North Carolina were sent home when the COVID-19 virus arrived in the Tar Heel State. By the time the second week of virtual learning began, cases were being reported across the state.
It was late December of that year before vaccines being developed at a record pace under the Trump administration became available, and another year before the Biden administration’s plan to distribute vaccines to as many people as possible. number of people possible reaches just over 50% of the population. . At that time, elementary students were allowed to return to Lee County classrooms, followed soon after by middle and high school students.
For nearly a year, students here and across the country have been learning virtually using a computer and an Internet connection. There has been almost unanimous agreement so far that the impact of COVID will also cause heavy collateral damage to student learning, and this has been confirmed by recent national studies.
Silicon Valley-based think tank McKinsey and Company, for example, recently found that the impact of the pandemic on K-12 student learning was significant, “leaving students an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. The pandemic has deepened pre-existing gaps in opportunity and achievement, hitting historically disadvantaged students the hardest.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction recently released data from one of its own in-state studies, and Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan presented the findings. of this study to the school board on March 8.
The study found that “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 otherwise would have.”
The DPI study is unique in that in addition to the data reported during and after the onset of the pandemic, it also offers a window into what Bryan called “a live look at what is being done to offset its impact. “.
Negative impacts were seen in all subjects, reading, maths and science, with the exception of English II, where end-of-grade tests actually showed a slight improvement. Lee County’s score declines, however, were nearly identical to those seen statewide, a strong indicator that the declines seen here are common to those in other school systems.
Equally important, the DPI figures indicate that students made very significant progress in catching up on their studies between the start of fall 2021 and the start of term 2022 in January. Bryan said it’s because students, teachers and staff returned to class in August motivated and ready to learn, and the study shows the number of students who are either at their grade level or at levels 1, 2, or 3 below very closely mirrors the state averages for those numbers in reading and math.
Another way to understand how things are going today among students two years after their educational world was turned upside down at the onset of the COVID pandemic is to look at the percentages marking as having achieved mastery of a subject in the end-of-year tests. and compare that to previous years.
DPI provided this comparison of Lee County students in 2020-21 with others who took the end-of-class tests in 2018-19, the last full year the students were in school. Here is an overview of the comparison of the percentages of students who achieved proficiency in eight subjects and grades:
Grade 3 Reading – 54.8% (18-19) 35.3% (20-21)
Grade 5 Reading – 51.4% (18-19) 33.0% (20-21)
Grade 4 Mathematics – 55.5% (18-19) 25.9% (20-21)
Mathematics 5th grade – 59.9% (18-19) 32.8% (20-21)
Grade 7 Reading – 51.2% (18-19) 39.6% (20-21)
Grade 8 Reading – 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 while the scores weren’t as bad as some thought, the district has deployed a number of different strategies that are pushing the needle in terms of outcomes for students across the county. These programs are funded by an infusion of federal and state COVID relief dollars that have come into the county over the past two years.
The actual amount of these funds, however, still remains a point of contention. Social media posts 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, however, promised that the district finance department would take a closer look at the matter and report back to the public in April.
At this point, LCS has spent about $12 million of the $29 million on projects that include retention bonuses for school board employees; new hires of school nurses, social workers and counsellors; creation of tutoring positions thanks to 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 in COVID relief dollars yet?”
It’s a question board member and fellow Republican Sherry Lynn Womack also posed, noting that some districts are reporting 80-100% of their funds being spent, while Lee County is currently at less than half.
“We do our best to be responsible with a very large sum of money,” he replied. “We don’t know what’s coming. I don’t think there’s a person in this room who doesn’t hope COVID is gone. But if the last 2 years have taught us anything, it’s that you better be ready for anything. We hope we are entering a more normal period. But we could have said the same after Delta disappeared last summer. Then came Omicron with infection rates higher than anything we had seen before. The simple answer is that we don’t know what’s coming. But we must do everything, everything we can to keep our children in school. We have to be ready for anything that might happen.
Modified leave policy
In a separate action, the board approved a change to 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 intended to make it easier for teachers to meet their personal responsibilities without having significant negative impacts on their leave balances and is another step to make it easier for the county to keep teachers in the classroom.