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Education

CMS Leaders Worry That Contact Tracers Aren't Linking Kids With COVID-19 To Schools

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Kelly Sikkema
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The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported more than 400 school-age children in Mecklenburg County tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

Updated 10 a.m.

The state reports that just over 400 school-age children in Mecklenburg County tested positive for COVID-19 last week. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which serves almost three-quarters of that population, reported only 37 student cases that week. That had school board members questioning the effectiveness of contact tracing Tuesday.

Linking COVID-19 cases to CMS is complicated by the fact that middle and high schools have been in remote learning since March. Elementary and K-8 schools returned in the fall, but have been in remote mode since shortly before winter break.

CMS has continued to report dozens of student cases a week, even during the break and with all students learning remotely.

District officials say they learn about student cases from their families and the Mecklenburg County health department. At Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Carol Sawyer questioned whether the health department is asking the right questions to flag CMS students.

"There’s still a sort of discrepancy between the number of positive cases of youth reported, which is much higher than schools reporting," she said. "So there seem to be some positive cases that aren’t attached anywhere."

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From Monday's CMS report on COVID-19 cases.

Chief School Performance Officer Kathy Elling told the CMS board that health department officials are notifying CMS -- and private schools -- when their students test positive.

But board member Rhonda Cheek says she’s heard from adults who say contact tracers ask very few questions, and she worries that’s true for children as well.

"I just have some real concerns about whether, because we do have so many cases right now, whether our public health department is truly asking the right questions to people," she said.

Health department officials didn’t speak at the school board meeting -- nor did they respond Tuesday to a request from WFAE to explain contact tracing for school-age children.

But CMS spokeswoman Eve White told WFAE Tuesday that the health department only notifies CMS if a student was in a school building within 14 days of a positive test or the onset of symptoms. In addition, she says principals have asked families to let them know if students who have been in school or active in sports get sick during breaks or remote-learning stretches.

She said the district’s tracking does not reflect more than 57,000 students who are in Full Remote Academy or those whose schools have not reopened for in-person classes.

Wednesday morning, a Health Department spokeswoman confirmed that the department notifies schools of positive cases only when a student has been physically present in the past 14 days.

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