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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

NC Health Officials Offer Schools New Guidance On COVID-19 Screening And Testing

An administrator at W. A. Bess Elementary School in Gastonia checks students' temperatures as they arrive at school.
Ann Doss Helms
An administrator at W. A. Bess Elementary School in Gastonia checks students' temperatures as they arrive at school.

North Carolina’s public schools are getting new guidance on coronavirus testing and reporting as thousands of students return to in-person classes.

On Thursday, officials from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services told the state Board of Education they’re going to collect and report new details on the age, race and ethnicity of students who test positive.

Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, told the board that there’s another new aspect to case tracking: Distinguishing between students who get sick while learning from home and those who are reporting to classrooms.

"We have updated our tracking system to now include questions about in-person school attendance during the exposure period because we do know that there are districts in Plan B, so we want to make sure that we’re capturing as much information as possible," Perry said.

Health and education officials say they’ll provide new guidance this week on such things as what schools must report to health departments and families – and who needs to be kept out of school. For instance, if one student is turned away from school because of potential COVID-19 symptoms, all siblings and other household members also should be sent home.

Encouraging Signs And Bad News

Schools opened Aug. 17, though many districts started with all remote classes. Perry says there hasn’t been a surge of cases among school-age children so far. And she said Black children don’t seem to be getting COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates, unlike adults.

But Perry says Hispanic children are getting sick at higher rates. They account for about one-third of all cases among North Carolina children, but only 17% of that population.

"So obviously this is not good news," Perry said, "and this is something that we need to take continued, shared action on to really reduce this disproportionality."

So far 24 North Carolina schools have experienced COVID-19 clusters – that is, five or more cases among staff and students where the spread appears to be linked to the school. Perry says a disproportionate number of those have been at private schools.

"What that is telling us is the importance of the mitigation strategies that are in N.C.’s public health tool kit, and adhering to those," she said.

Wayne Christian School, in eastern North Carolina’s Wayne County, has by far the largest number of cluster cases, with 34 students and six staff members testing positive. In the Charlotte region, the only active clusters are at Gaston County’s Webb Street School, with five total cases, and at Covenant Day School in Mecklenburg County, with seven.

Perry said no deaths have been linked to school clusters.

"I do know that we tragically did lose a Stanly County teacher, but I’m talking her specifically about cluster-related deaths," she said.

The state has not reported on school cases that aren’t deemed to be part of clusters. For instance, Gaston County, which opened with in-person classes, has tallied more than 100 cases at 40 schools in the first eight weeks of class.

Who Should Get New Tests?

Rebecca Planchard, a senior policy advisor to Health and Human Services, said antigen tests will soon become available to some local health departments and public schools. Those tests provide quick results on active infection, potentially identifying the most likely spreaders.

Planchard said new guidelines will encourage using the tests to check staff and students with symptoms, their close contacts, and possibly everyone who has attended schools with COVID-19 clusters.

But she says federal and state officials don’t advise trying to screen everyone before students return in person.

"This is not recommended as a requirement to entry to in-person learning, because we would not want to create barriers to learning," she said. "Nor would we recommend all of the logistical considerations that go into that."

While the return to in-person classes has been in the news, Board of Education Chair Eric Davis said the state also plans to survey districts and charter schools about successes and challenges connected with remote learning. Tens of thousands of families have opted to keep their children in remote academies at least through the first semester, and possibly for the whole school year.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.