CMS student Addison Thompson (left) takes part in her daily classwork in her home via remote learning while her mother Amanda assists her. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin) Addison and Amanda Thompson
CMS student Addison Thompson (left) takes part in her daily classwork in her home via remote learning while her mother Amanda assists her. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin)

A month after North Carolina schools reconvened, the state has confirmed 15 coronavirus clusters in public and private schools.

As some school systems in North Carolina reopen for in-person classes, reports of COVID clusters have made some parents question whether to send their children back into the classroom.

According to the most recent data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), updated Sept. 29, there are 15 clusters (five or more cases in one location with illness onset or a positive test result within the same 14-day period) and a total of 135 cases in schools throughout the state. This includes both public and private schools. 

One of the largest reported clusters is in Wayne County at private Wayne Christian School, which has reported 27 total cases—21 students and six staff. Most of the other school outbreaks are currently in the single digits. 

In addition to Wayne County, clusters have been reported in public schools in Craven, Gaston, Macon, Moore, Onslow, Robeson, Sampson and Wilkes counties. Private or charter schools in Bladen, Cumberland, Greene, Hertford, Mecklenburg, Randolph and Wayne counties have reported clusters.

In Wilkes County, North Wilkes High School—which has been open under Plan B with alternating in-person days since Sept. 8—reported a cluster of five cases with four students and one staff member. The school was closed for in-person learning on Sept. 24 and 25 for additional cleaning after the cases were reported. 

“After speaking with our health director, we realized that all of our confirmed student cases were among those who attend on ‘B’ days of our A/B schedule,” said Wilkes County Schools superintendent D. Mark Byrd. “Because of this, we allowed our ‘A’ group of students to attend in person this week, while those students in cohort ‘B’ met remotely.  We hope to return to our regular A/B schedule next week.”

Twelve of the 22 Wilkes County schools have reported people testing positive for COVID-19 since school reopened, but North Wilkes High is the only one with a cluster at this time.

Cumberland County Schools voted down a plan to reopen the district on Sept. 17, citing among other factors, 67 employees who have tested positive for the virus. Lewis Chapel Middle School and Seventy-First High School will be closed for deep cleaning Sept. 30-Oct. 2 after staff members at both schools tested positive for COVID-19. The district will continue with remote learning through the remainder of 2020.

Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. has convened a COVID-19 medical advisory team made up of local health officials and internal and external stakeholders in the school system. 

“The team reviews weekly COVID-19 metrics for Cumberland County, such as the case positivity rate, new cases per capita (100K), the rate of acceleration and the number of active clusters in the last two weeks,” said Lindsay A. Whitley, associate superintendent of communications and community engagement. “The team’s input will help guide the district as it charts a path toward reopening for in-person instruction, which the Cumberland County Board of Education will later consider for approval.”

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Sept. 17 that North Carolina schools could reopen for in-person classes under Plan A, which requires protocols like wellness checks, extensive cleaning and wearing masks, but doesn’t include the same social distancing rules and capacity limits enforced under Plan B. While most districts still remain under or plan to reopen with Plan B, some will transition to Plan A later this fall. 

Some educators have expressed concern about the move to Plan A, chief among them the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, the NC Association of Educators (NCAE). The group’s president, Tamika Walker Kelly, gave a statement critical of the move shortly after Cooper’s announcement.

“Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger,” said Walker Kelly. “Maintaining a minimum six-foot social distance at all times is a critical safety measure for both educators and students, and we will not recommend for any educator to enter a non-distancing classroom without a properly fitted N-95 mask to protect their health, and the health of everyone around them.”

Since June 22, the NCDHHS has produced twice-weekly reports of COVID-19 clusters in school and child care settings. Child care operators and school principals are already required per General Statute 130A-136 to report suspected cases of reportable communicable diseases (including COVID-19) to the local health director of the county or district in which the school or facility is located. 

These reports are available on the NCDHHS website, but individual school districts also communicate news of outbreaks to parents. In Wilkes County, the school district worked with the local health department to craft a notice that goes out to parents when someone in their child’s class or on their bus tests positive. 

“The letter also states that the parents of those who are directly impacted by this situation will be contacted by the health department,” said Byrd. “We have found that parents appreciate the communication and have found this letter to somewhat ease their minds. If school schedules are adjusted, we are utilizing school messenger calls, social media, and school and district websites to inform students, parents and staff members.”

As schools across the state transition back to in-person learning, the possibility for additional outbreaks continues to be a concern. Still, most districts plan to proceed back to the classroom with caution, hoping safety protocols and infection monitoring will be enough to salvage the remainder of this school year.