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Official Explains CMS COVID-19 Reporting System As Questions, Doubts Surface

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Ann Doss Helms
Cotswold Elementary math facilitator Arikka Stevens does a temperature scan on the first day of in-person classes Nov. 2.

On Monday Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools posted its first public list of schools with COVID-19 cases. By Tuesday people were questioning its accuracy -- and the district’s system of notifying families and employees when someone in their school gets the virus.

Two educators told the school board that some employees learned about cases in their schools from news reports.

“We are not getting a transparent picture of how safe reentry is being implemented across this district,” teacher Haley Rowley said. “We’re furious, scared, confused and exhausted from the gaslighting.”

Educator Amanda Thompson-Rice agreed: “We need transparent communication to staff when cases are on their campus.”

It’s a challenge across the state: How to let people know if their safety is at risk without violating the privacy of students and staff. Schools work with local health officials, and disclosure practices vary by district and school.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling told the board how the CMS system works and why there can be gaps that raise questions.

Notice Comes After Positive Test

Elling says employees and families are notified only when someone tests positive.

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Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling

“A suspected case could be an individual, child or adult, who presents symptoms that may signal COVID-19,” she said. The school follows protocol for isolating the individual and starts figuring out who has had contact with that person. But before that situation is reported “we need confirmation from the health department that we actually have a positive case.”

“We are not notifying ‘I think I have it,’ “ Elling said. “It’s just not an appropriate methodology. There’s a lot of symptoms that mimic COVID-19 and we’re headed into flu season.”

Once there’s a positive test, all employees at the school and all families with students attending in person are notified, and anyone considered a close contact is told to quarantine for 14 days and seek medical advice. Students who are in Full Remote Academy aren’t notified because there’s no potential exposure.

Dozens of schools in the Charlotte region, including in Gaston, Union and Iredell counties and Rock Hill, South Carolina, have reported COVID-19 cases among staff and students. But most are not considered clusters, which North Carolina defines as five or more cases that appear to have spread at school. So far CMS has had no clusters, and the majority statewide are in private schools that don’t have to follow the same safety rules as public schools.

Lag Between Data And Dashboard

Elling said there’s some lag in public reporting. Developments that occur between Friday afternoon and the posting of the weekly dashboard early on Monday afternoon won’t show up until the following week.

“After 5 o’clock on Friday we put a lockdown, so to speak, on the data,” she said. “We have had positive cases arrive late on Friday night to get rolled into the next week.”

The dashboard also includes a mix of seven-day and 14-day measures, which can create confusion and skepticism. For instance, the latest readiness dashboard lists 42 schools with cases over the past 14 days, but the school list, which covers only seven days, includes 27 schools.

Finally, there’s always a chance of human error as people learn new procedures, but Elling and board members say principals and district staff are committed to timely, consistent notice of cases.

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