BOONE — State Superintendent Catherine Truitt (Republican) visited Watauga County Schools in an attempt to learn more about the school system on Sept. 23.
As a North Carolina leader in education, she provided information and clarity on current issues for students and faculty surrounding COVID-19 and other topics.
“The state absolutely should assist districts in helping their faculty and staff and students overcome the social, emotional and mental health challenges from COVID-19,” said Truitt in an interview during her visit.
Truitt went over the need for continued mental, emotional and economic support for students and faculty.
Truitt indicated that “the federal government has stepped in and given three rounds of funding,” which can be used for student and faculty support.
However, mental health and financial security won’t automatically improve once government funding cuts off, she said.
Truitt went on to explain that officials must be good stewards of the resources they receive while planning effectively for an eventual funding cliff, which she describes as a sudden stop in an infusion of funds.
“So that means figuring out what worked during the pandemic, which is something that my office is doing right now,” Truitt said, explaining that states must prioritize key investments once the federal funding finishes.
Also related to COVID-19, Truitt predicted the likelihood of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reaches full approval for students of all ages.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen with that,” Truitt said. “But if I had to guess, I would say that it will not be because it doesn’t kill children. It doesn’t cripple children like polio, for example, which was a mandatory vaccine until we eradicated polio.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus has claimed the lives of 478 children between the age 17 and younger as of Sept. 29.
Truitt said that the vaccine may be more comparable to the flu vaccine, which is optional for students. However, she reiterated that like many policies and practices during the pandemic, her answer is not definite.
“If it turns out that health officials do recommend that states consider ... making it mandatory, there is a very formal process in place, in law, that the state will go through,” Truitt said.
Truitt shared that a vaccine mandate wouldn’t be an individual decision made solely by the state board of education, the governor, or even the legislature, but rather would go through multiple stakeholders to reach approval.
She also discussed how the student meal plan — a resolution to provide all students with free school breakfast and lunch during the pandemic — will continue in future school years. Plans have been extended to provide free meals through June 2022.
“Personally, as an educator, I feel that it should continue to be free,” Truitt said. “But whether or not it continues to be free could end up being a district-by-district decision. Not all districts may decide to make it free. But if money from the federal government continues to come, it absolutely should be free for everyone.”
As both an official and former educator, Truitt explained that distance learning will continue during and after the pandemic.
“There will be a study done as we get close to the end of that year that will be presented to the legislature,” Truitt said. “And if it is determined that these virtual academies are working, there will be legislation around their existence, how they can function and what needs to be in place so that every district is able to have high-quality virtual options for kids and families who want them.”