State health official: There are fewer COVID-19 clusters in school districts that require masks

There have been significantly fewer COVID-19 clusters in North Carolina school districts requiring masks compared to those that do not, State Health Director Betsey Tilson reported Thursday.

Dr. Tilson (pictured at left speaking at a 2020 briefing) told the State Board of Education (SBE) that in three counties without a school mask mandate between Aug. 26 and Sept. 26, there were 17.2 clusters per 100 schools. In the 89 counties with “consistent” mask mandates, there was an average of 6.9 clusters per 100 schools, Tilson said. Thirty-five of the counties did not report a cluster.

“There were about half as many clusters per 100 schools in those counties with a consistent mask mandate as opposed to those counties without,” she said.

Eight counties that reported clusters and changed mask mandates during the period studied were excluded from the report.

A COVID-19 cluster in childcare or school settings is defined by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) as a “minimum of five confirmed diagnostic cases with illness onset or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.”

Of the state’s 115 school districts, 106 of them now require masks.  Slightly more than 93% of the states 1.5 million K-12 students — 1.25 million — attend schools in districts with mask mandates.

Five school districts have made masks optional, including Harnett County Schools, which voted Monday to make masks optional over the objections of county health officials. The other four districts are in Union, Yancey, Lincoln and Pender counties, according to a map shared by Tilson.

The number of clusters in K-12 schools is as high as they have been since the pandemic began, Tilson said. There are currently 258 active clusters in public schools and 12 in private schools, she reported.

School mask mandates have become a political football in North Carolina and across the country. Parents have crowded into school board meetings to complain that masks interfere with the educational process, cause respiratory illnesses and deny families the right to decide what’s best for their children.

Board meetings have become such volatile events that the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden to help protect board members from angry parents who threaten school boards.

The Justice Department and the FBI were ordered this week to help protect school employees across the country against violence and threats over mask mandates and Critical Race Theory (CRT), an obscure academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. Most educators say CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.

In Greensboro this summer, the Guilford County Board of Education took threats against Superintendent Sharon Contreas and the board seriously. Security was increased to protect the superintendent and the board.

Gov. Roy Cooper has allowed school districts to decide whether to require masks. Several districts initially made masking optional but changed course after the virus’ more transmissible Delta variant took hold in the state.

What school boards must do

State health officials and the SBE sought to clear up confusion Thursday about school districts’ obligation to cooperate with local health officials when there is a COVID-19 outbreak.

SBE attorney Alison Schafer shared new NCDHHS guidance that spell out what school boards must do to comply with state law in their dealings with local health departments.

“There’s been a lot of confusion in the schools about what the legal requirements are,” said SBE attorney Allison Schafer. “First of all, under the law, schools are required to work with local health departments to identify, contract trace and exclude children who may have contracted the disease or are suspected of contracting the disease and to also identify those who have been exposed.”

Here’s a condensed version of the new NCDHHS guidance Schafer shared:

  • The law requires that school principals report to the local health department anyone within in a school who they have reason to suspect has a reportable communicable disease.
  •  Schools must promptly provide to the designated State and local public health authorities any and all records or information requested. This information can include, but is not limited to, people who were within 6 feet of the case for 15 minutes or more cumulatively in a 24-hour period, class rosters, contact information for staff, students, and parents, spatially accurate seating charts, attendance records, sports teams and extracurricular activity rosters and locker assignments.
  • When someone in the school is diagnosed with COVID-19, schools must promptly work with local public health officials so that local health officials can quickly identify individuals exposed to COVID-19 in accordance with CDC Guidance. In addition to providing required records, as described above, contact tracing also requires schools to participate in interviews and other information exchange with local public health officials as part of the case investigation to track exposures and identify close contacts.
  • Pursuant to CDC Guidance and as part of the written and required control measures in North Carolina, persons exposed to COVID-19 are directed to self-quarantine. If an individual fails to adhere to this requirement, then a local health director or designee may issue a formal quarantine order pursuant to NCGS § 130A-145. Formal quarantine orders are not necessary to create a legal requirement to comply with control measures. Schools are required to exclude students, teachers, and staff who meet the criteria to quarantine regardless of whether an order has been issued.

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