LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education voted to compel all students and staff members to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status as they return to school next year.
The mask-wearing recommendation was made by Superintendent Freddie Williamson.
“I am requesting your approval for universal mask wearing in the buildings and on the buses,” Williamson said.
The mask requirements will be revisited every 30 days, he said.
The approval vote was made without opposition, but after lengthy discussion. During the discussion Board member Randy Lawson called for the superintendent to make a recommendation.
Board member Vonta Leach demanded to know why one school in the southern portion of the county was not shut down after COVID-19 cases were reported its campus. Leach compared it to another school that was shut down two days before the end of summer school after a cluster was identified on its campus.
A cluster consists of five or more people connected through contact tracing, according to Stephaine Locklear, PSRC Health Services supervisor.
Locklear and Williamson addressed Leach’s concerns, saying students exposed in the classroom and on the bus were sent home. Symptoms did not develop until the exposed students were at home under quarantine, which did not place a “cluster” on the school’s campus.
Closing the schools campus was not the appropriate course of action, Locklear said.
The superintendent said that if a school needs to be closed down for the safety of students, their health will not be compromised.
“It is not our intent to put anyone at risk,” Williamson said.
School Board Chairman Mike Smith said the situation remains “fluid,” as it has been described in the past. Case numbers in Robeson County seem to be “moving targets,” but the school administration will reevaluate its course of action as needed while numbers continue to shift, he said.
Bobby Locklear, assistant superintendent for Auxiliary Services, shared information about the upcoming school year.
Unlike this past year, state officials are not giving the option of remote learning as a substitute for in-person learning, he said. Rather, all students are urged to return to the classroom.
“We currently do not have an option for students being at home,” he said.
The exceptions to remote learning are students with medical needs. Those cases will be reviewed by district leaders and parents before a decision is made.
“There are no options to teach virtually from home,” said Melissa Thompson, assistant superintendent of Human Resources.
If positive cases are identified in schools and educators become ill, the HR department will work on a case-by-case basis with them, said Erica Setzer, PSRC chief Finance officer.
Bobby Locklear said about 10,000 desk shields have been ordered.
“So now we should have over 30,000 desk shields,” he said.
Stations for checking temperatures will no longer be in place, Locklear said. The assistant superintendent also recommends students continue to eat in the classroom. Athletes not engaging in physical activity indoors must wear a face mask.
As PSRC teams travel, they will be expected to continue following guidelines put in place by PSRC, said Jerome Hunt, district Athletic director. Those guidelines will remain in place for visiting sports teams.
Students and staff members who are exposed directly to a person infected with COVID-19 must quarantine for 14 days. People who test positive for the virus must quarantine for 10 days. People who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine unless symptoms develop.
The isolation rooms at schools will remain in place, Stephaine Locklear said.
Buses can assume their normal capacities, said Robert Guzman, director of PSRC’s Transportation Department.
Board member Craig Lowry called for schools to be monitored and principals to be held accountable when safety guidelines aren’t being followed.
“People need to be held accountable,” Lowry said.
As discussion of the coming school year continued board members shared their concerns.
“I’m just wondering logistically if this is all feasible,” said Terry Locklear, a school board member.
“We’re failing our kids if we don’t go back to school,” Lawson said.
“No matter what, it’s a double-edged sword,” Board member Dwayne Smith said of the reentry decision.
But one thing Board members all agreed on was the success the district’s Summer Learning Recovery and Enrichment Camps.
Forty-six students in grade three who participated in the summer camps showed reading proficiency via i-Ready assessments and 30 students showed reading proficiency via Read to Achieve assessment, according to Sandra Evans, PSRC K-8 Curriculum supervisor. Those students were not previously proficient in reading.
Board member Linda Emanuel said the program is “probably the most worthwhile” summer program she’s seen in her tenure.
“You’ve got a template now to do things next summer,” Lowry said.
However, Setzer said the investment in the summer school program was close to $12 million in external funding the school system likely won’t get in the future.
Students who did not meet growth will be moved to a grade 3-4 transitional course, with 90 minutes of uninterrupted instruction, she said. The same will be true for students in grades one through three.
“We’re going to try to meet them where they are,” Burnette said.
Evans also said the following students from PSRC high schools earned or recovered credits through the summer program: 769, Fairmont; 783, Lumberton; 637, Purnell Swett; 622, Red Springs; and 586, St. Pauls.
After emerging from closed session to discuss Certified/Classified personnel, Board members approved personnel changes. Among items discussed was the hiring of academic coaches and mentors.
Board member Vonta Leach said teachers are being taken from classrooms to become academic coaches and mentors, while the shortage and high turnover rate of teachers remains.
Windy Dorsey-Carr, PSRC’s executive director of School Transformation, said the positions will be used to help support and mentor teachers, help with lesson plans, data and teaching.