The Orange County School Board met Monday evening to discuss potential changes and challenges facing the district and students as a result of the pandemic. It also received recommendations from the Orange County Health Department and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on whether the school district should allow the continuation of school athletic events, or shut down sports that are considered high risk for two weeks, from Sept. 14 to Sept. 30. The meeting was in response to a continued rise in positive Covid-19 cases and the rapid spread of the Delta variant throughout Orange County.  

Football, basketball, wrestling, and competitive cheerleading all fell under high risk for transmission, and therefore were recommended to be cancelled immediately for two weeks, due to close proximity of athletes on and off the field. The cancelation would include off-season sports, like basketball and wrestling, that soon will engage in practices for the upcoming season. 

Most members of the school board expressed trepidation over halting football season, which is already well underway.

In the end, the board voted in favor of stricter masking — properly worn over the nose, mouth and chin, limiting attendance, social distancing, and ending concessions and the sale of food and drink for all sports, even those not considered high-risk. Many of the protocols had been in place when infection numbers were declining.

Sports would be able to continue, but strict adherence to updated Covid guidelines would be the expectation.

More than a dozen members of the public spoke in-person and virtually, giving impassioned pleas to allow the athletics to continue. 

Deputy Superintendent of Operations Patrick Abele offered details on confirmed and potentially positive Covid-19 cases in Orange County Schools’ athletics.

Other agenda items taken up by the school board involved staffing challenges for a variety of occupations within the district. Orange County Schools is struggling to fill bus driver vacancies. Director of Transportation Larry Albert said the district has 43 buses covering 66 routes, providing transportation for 3,477 students. By comparison, in 2020, the district had 59 buses transporting the same number of kids.

Sylvia Compton, who is the district lead nurse, pleaded with the board for additional staffing and support for school nurses who are feeling the brunt of Covid compliance and response. Orange County Schools has 10 full-time active nurses serving 13 schools. Compton said 800 documented Covid investigations have been performed by those 10 nurses in three weeks. She said the average investigation takes one to two hours. 

“With 10 of us, we’re not surviving,” Compton said. “We can’t do it any more. We need help.” 

She said nurses are also working the vaccination clinics, often have no weekends off and little rest. 

“We’re asking for help,” she said.

The board approved staffing requests for a floating nurse, six contact tracers, 20 bus drivers, and a recruitment bonus for the hiring of three school psychologists.

Other information shared at the meeting involved vaccine percentages at all of the Orange County School district sites. Overall, 74.9 percent of OCS staff is fully vaccinated, with the Partnership Academy being the only 100 percent staff-vaccinated site. All school sites showed a better than 65 percent staff-vaccinated rate.