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Charlotte-area schools reopen this week as COVID-19 numbers rise

The rock at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Piedmont Middle School welcomes students back from winter break.
Claire Donnelly
The rock at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Piedmont Middle School welcomes students back from winter break.

Students across the Charlotte region return to classrooms this week after a holiday vacation that has seen the omicron variant of COVID-19 drive up infections.

New guidance from state health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention means they’ll be able to return to school faster if they’re exposed but don’t develop symptoms.

The North Carolina rules in place before the holidays required unvaccinated students who were exposed in schools without consistent mask use to stay home for seven to 10 days. Last week the CDC cut its recommended quarantine to five days, and the state followed suit.

Most districts surrounding Mecklenburg County will return under mask-optional policies. That includes Union County Public Schools, which resumes classes Monday. In the week before the break, the district had 137 students test positive for COVID-19 and just over 2,200 required to quarantine because of exposure.

Assistant Superintendent Tahira Stalberte says the district is monitoring the increase in COVID-19 cases locally and reviewing the new quarantine rules. Meanwhile, she asks parents to make sure sick kids don’t spread anything.

“If kids are symptomatic, if they are showing signs that the CDC has released in terms of cough, runny nose, headache and things that are COVID symptoms, we would ask that they stay home until they absolutely know if they have been diagnosed with COVID or not,” Stalberte said.

Students return Tuesday to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where masks are required, and Cabarrus County Schools, where they’re not. Before the break Cabarrus County had 732 students in quarantine. CMS, which is more than four times the size of Cabarrus, had 53.

In the state cluster report posted on Dec. 21, just before the holiday break, Harold Winkler Middle School in Cabarrus County had a cluster of 34 student cases related to school spread.

Even with masks, though, CMS officials say they’ll be on the alert for COVID-19 cases. Assistant Superintendent of Communications Patrick Smith asked families to help head off spread as well.

“Maintain distance. Be smart about gatherings. Be very selective about public events involving lots of people,” Smith said. “I strongly encourage everyone who’s eligible to get vaccinated.”

On Sunday CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston sent a message to families reminding them that the district isn't allowed to go remote, updating them on the new quarantine rules and urging them to keep sick kids home and try to get them tested for COVID-19.

Federal and state health guidance calls for mask use inside schools. In Mecklenburg County, it’s required as part of an indoor mask mandate that will end only when positivity rates get below 5%. As of last week, the rate was almost 15%, and the CDC rated all counties in the Charlotte region as having high community transmission of COVID-19.

In a news conference just before her retirement last week, Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris said the county's mandate means private and charter schools also should be requiring face coverings indoors.

Iredell-Statesville Schools, which is among several districts bringing students back on Wednesday, is switching to a mask mandate after seeing quarantines rise and schools switch to remote instruction before the break.

In Chester County, South Carolina, the school district had planned to bring students back Wednesday but pushed that back to Jan. 10 after seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases before the break. Gaston and Lincoln county schools will also bring students back Jan. 10.

North Carolina law requires districts to keep offering in-person classes, even if cases spike. But superintendents may switch classrooms or schools to remote learning if COVID-19 conditions require it.

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Updated: January 3, 2022 at 10:35 AM EST
Updated with information about the CMS message to families and a COVID-19 cluster in Cabarrus County.
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.