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Projects aim to make schools safer during pandemic

From sanitation supplies to air purifiers to an expanded school nursing staff, Lenoir County Public Schools has invested millions of dollars in its effort to make schools and its other worksites safer during the coronavirus pandemic.

Female kindergarten student sits on carpet with back to camera with air purifier unit in background.The funds come almost exclusive from the federal allocation to public school districts known as ESSER, or the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. LCPS is currently following through on plans that commit about $14 million in ESSER money to school and classroom improvements, additional personnel and academic programs designed to help students make up ground lost during school years disrupted by the pandemic.

“We will spend every dime of it, and we will be very intentional in our efforts,” said Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Harvey II, whose responsibilities include district operations and student services. “Nothing has occurred by happenstance. Every purchase, every hire is intentional to support our students and staff.”

The program is divided into four parts, beginning with the first-phase response that provided face masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies and equipment to the schools, as well as “personnel to assist us with those efforts in the area of sanitation,” Harvey said.

Phase II saw the purchase and installation of air purifiers for classrooms and common areas at the schools and water fountains that double as refilling stations for water bottles. The district has acquired more than a thousand air purifiers at a cost of about $2 million and 54 water fountains at a cost of about $81,000.

Watch a quick video of an AirBox air purifier going into one of our schools.

The air purifiers are in place; installation of the water fountains is on-going. “Just like everyone else, we’re at the mercy of manufacturers and the supply chain when it comes to supplies and materials,” Harvey said.

Phase III, just getting underway, is the expansion of mental health and emotional support resources. “We’re not only looking to provide a safe environment, we’re also looking to provide support for our students,” Harvey said. “That can be seen in additional mental health support in the form of social workers and clinical psychologists, as well as increased personnel like Covid-19 nurses.”

LCPS augmented its staff of seven full-time school nurses by hiring three part-time nurses dedicated to the district’s in-school Covid-19 testing program, which has been active since January 2021. Three more Covid-19 nurses are expected to come on board in the next few weeks.

The fourth – and perhaps the most ambitious – phase of the program will target physical improvements for schools and other facilities. Improving HVAC systems is high on the list, according to Harvey.

“We have begun the process of assessing our needs,” Harvey said. “The next step is to address those issues. This is an on-going effort to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for our students and staff.”

LCPS has also used the federal funds to help create a unique academic intervention program now active in all 17 schools and will put ESSER money to work in July when it launches its most inclusive summer learning program ever.

“We have been able to establish an unprecedented network of support structures with the ESSER money that has been provided to address learning loss as a result of consequences from the pandemic,” said Associate Superintendent Frances Herring, who leads curriculum development for the district.

In the intervention program, students receive focused small group instruction in key areas – reading and math for elementary students, for instance – from a staff largely comprised of retired educators. The instruction occurs outside the classroom but during school hours, usually four days a week. Students get individual attention in areas where their teachers, test scores and other data points indicate they need extra help.

The summer learning program will have the same goal of giving students an academic boost, but on a much larger scale. LCPS will offer four different opportunities for instruction. In addition to reprising the Summer Enrichment Academy that debuted last summer for K-12 students, the district will also offer a special session for rising sixth graders and rising freshmen to help them transition to middle school and high school, respectively, and a new program designed to acquaint middle and high school students with potential careers.

Plans for these academic programs, as with all ESSER-funded projects and programs, have to be reviewed and approved by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Photo caption:

An Airbox air purifier hums away in a kindergarten class at Northwest Elementary School. LCPS has installed more than a thousand of these and larger units in classrooms and school common areas throughout the district, making schools safer during the coronavirus pandemic.