HERTFORD — Perquimans County school officials have approved new incentives to recruit and retain more bus drivers that include raising starting pay to $15 an hour.

The Board of Education voted unanimously earlier this week to approve a $2-per-hour increase above the state pay scale for bus drivers for the 2021-22 school year. The move raises starting pay for bus drivers to $15 per hour.

In addition, the school district will cover the cost of drivers’ initial license certifications, license renewals and N.C. Department of Transportation physicals.

Speaking at Monday’s board meeting, Chairwoman Anne White praised “our amazing bus drivers” and remarked how they are critical to the district being able to hold in-person school.

White said in a later interview that school officials want to increase pay for all Perquimans County Schools staff but can’t do it all at once. Officials decided to start with bus drivers, she said, and will look next at other key support staff such as cafeteria workers, maintenance workers and teacher assistants.

The board also voted to extend the district’s mandatory COVID-19 masking policy. School staff recommended requiring “the wearing of masks for all students, staff, and visitors/spectators ... while inside school facilities in order to limit the number of (COVID-19) quarantines and spread within the district.”

The recommendation is the same the board has approved previously. Under the board’s current policy, the school masking mandate expires at the end of each month. For it to remain in effect, the board has to vote to continue it at the end of each month.

COVID metrics in Perquimans and the school district are presented to the board at each monthly meeting as part of the decision-making process.

Superintendent Tanya Turner reminded the board that the school district had switched from optional masking to mandatory masking in September.

Last week, she told the board, there were a record 22 students who tested positive for COVID-19 while two staff members also tested positive.

Quarantines have gone down since masks have been required, she noted.

The Centers for Disease Control rating for COVID-19 transmission in Perquimans County is still “high,” she said. But officials are beginning to see positive trends for the region, she added.

New COVID-19 cases in Perquimans rose by 44 between Nov. 12 and Wednesday, according to the latest reporting by Albemarle Regional Health Services. The number of active COVID cases in Perquimans rose by 10 to 39 during that time period.

The CDC’s data tracker on Thursday also showed Perquimans with 289.6 COVID cases per 100,000 people — the highest case rate by far in ARHS’ eight-county public health district. The county’s positivity rate — the number of COVID tests that come back positive — was 12.8%. Only Gates County (13.58%) had a positivity rate higher in the district.

School officials expressed concern about the possible effects of the Thanksgiving holiday on COVID cases in the county. They said they are taking a cautious approach because of the holidays and national trends.

“If we all have our masks on and someone becomes positive, we don’t have to quarantine,” Turner said.

Board member Russell Lassiter said the board needs to have eye on the first opportunity to unmask. But he doesn’t think that point has arrived yet, he said.

White said the vaccination rate also needs to improve in the community. According to the CDC data tracker, only 49.8% of county residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated. Only Hertford County, with a rate of 49.1%, is lower.

A motion to accept the superintendent’s recommendation passed with board member Matt Peeler casting the lone “no” vote.

The board also heard a presentation on the Judicial Attendance Council by Danielle Smith, a district social worker.

The Judicial Attendance Council develops a plan to improve a student’s attendance. Schools and the school district work to improve school attendance.

Officials meet with the student’s family to improve attendance. There were 15 referrals to the JAC in October and 16 in November, Smith said.