The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health COVID-19 ToolKit was updated Thursday with some changes to quarantine and isolation rules for students and staff that will keep both students and staff in the classroom.
One of the most significant updates the agency recommended involved how students handle COVID-19 exposure saying, “Individual contact tracing and exclusion from school of asymptomatic people after an identified exposure is no longer recommended statewide in K-12 schools.”
That means, effective on Monday, Feb. 21, students exposed to COVID-19 who don’t show any symptoms will be allowed to stay in the classroom.
“I am cautiously optimistic that this decision is a step in the right direction,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “At this point in the school year, we have seen over 3200 quarantines with only 52 of those quarantined resulting in a known positive CoVid transmission. This means that less than 2% of students and staff quarantined have actually contracted the virus. Considering this data, it would appear that we can safely move forward with only quarantining those folks testing positive for Covid. Not only will this change allow otherwise healthy students to remain in school, it will also free up our nurses to help address the health needs of our students rather than spend an inordinate amount of time contact tracing.”
Macon County Schools reported Friday that 75 students were currently under quarantine with 8 students testing positive in the district. There were 11 staff quarantined as of Friday, with four staff members across the district testing positive.
As Dr. Baldwin noted, in-person learning and keeping children and staff in schools while decreasing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is the priority for these new guidelines.
The new guidance comes as the number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has fallen in recent weeks, as the omicron variant wave has waned. The number of people with COVID-19 in the hospital also has dropped from a pandemic high of over 5,200 two weeks ago to below 3,700 as of Wednesday, according to DHHS data.
On Friday, Jackson County Schools Public Information Officer David Proffitt said that the changes were brand new and no official comment was ready to be made.
Jackson County Schools currently requires masks for all students and staff — a measure that House Republicans asked Governor Roy Cooper to address prior to Thursday’s updated guidance changes.
Speaker of the North Carolina House of Republicans sent a letter to Governor Cooper on Thursday asking for the state to change the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines that the Speaker claims “have al but compelled local schools to keep their mask mandates in place.”
The NC toolkit recommends that districts in high areas of COVID19 spread have a universal masking requirement, which Jackson County Schools recently voted to continue due to the spread of the current Omicron variant. Local districts are permitted to decide what is best for their individual districts, with no state requirements for or against mask policies.
According to the N.C. School Boards Association, as of Feb. 4 most systems required masks. Twenty-eight, the association said, were mask optional. Macon County Schools is among the 28 districts out of the state’s 115 districts with a mask optional policy currently. In Western North Carolina, Cherokee County and Graham County are the only other school districts with an optional mask policy.
Swain County Schools also continues to require masks for students and staff. When asked for input from Swain County Schools regarding the updated guidance on Friday, District Public Information Officer Toby Burrell responded to ask what organization I (Brittney Lofthouse) was with but did not otherwise respond to the request from comment by press time.
Following the release of the updated Toolkit, House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement saying that the updates did not do enough. “We must do more to protect our children from further learning setbacks and the other consequences of keeping these (mask) mandates in place.” The statement also says that legislation that gives parents the ability to opt-out of mask requirements will soon be advanced in the House.