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

Health Officials Say School Sports Are Leading To COVID-19 Outbreaks

COVID-19 vaccine
Courtesy Atrium Health

Updated 5 p.m. with information from the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

North Carolina health officials said Thursday that schools can remain open despite rising COVID-19 cases, but warned that athletic events may be contributing to spread.

Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told the state Board of Education that school clusters remain a very small part of the overall COVID-19 outbreak in the state.

"While we are seeing alarming spread of COVID-19, our spread and our clusters in schools continues to be relatively low and relatively stable," she said. "We've prioritized schools being able to be open and we are going to continue to prioritize that."

Board member J. Wendell Hall asked for recommendations on middle and high school athletics.

"This month we're starting with basketball and next month we'll be heavily involved in football. So do you have any updated recommendations?" he asked.

Perry acknowledged there's risk.

"Definitely I think a concern with sports is mask-wearing and that indoor activity," she said. "What we’ve seen are quite a number of outbreaks in sports teams."

But she didn't offer further guidance, and there was no discussion of restricting athletics.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has allowed athletic practices even though it has kept middle and high schools in remote learning for the entire school year, so far. The district has reported almost 50 COVID-19 cases among high school students, including 23 at Hough High.

Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris told WFAE that most of those high school cases are among student athletes, but "that does not necessarily mean they were exposed at practice or games."

Vaccines Coming ... For Some

Dr. Charlene Wong with the Department of Health and Human Services said teachers and school support staff are considered frontline essential workers. That means they're up next, after people 75 and older — but older workers will come before younger ones.

"We are planning to start with that group with folks who are 50 years and older and then open to all ages," Wong said. "That’s because we know that this group is particularly large. It’s not just our education workers. It includes other folks like our corrections officers and first responders like our firefighters and policemen and our folks working in grocery stores and public transit."

Wong didn’t give a precise timeline but said it will likely be months before all adults are vaccinated. And she said most students won’t be vaccinated this school year.

The Moderna inoculation is considered safe for people as young as 16, but shots for younger children will depend on the results of clinical trials. She said that means there's no guarantee they'll be vaccinated before the coming 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.