• 41°

COVID-19 closes local school

ASKEWVILLE – The growing number of COVID-19 cases locally has led to the temporary closure of one school in Bertie County.

On Wednesday, Bethel Assembly Christian Academy (BACA) Principal Sharon Jernigan notified the parents/guardians of students enrolled at the faith-based school in Askewville that classes are canceled until January 4.

At the time of that announcement, the school was already closed due to three of their high school-age students testing positive for the virus during the week of Thanksgiving. That closure was originally scheduled to end on Dec. 7, but as of Friday morning (Dec. 4), the number of reported cases at the school had grown to 14 (12 students and two staff members).

“In order to do our part to keep everyone safe, BACA will be closed until January 4,” Jernigan said in an email sent this week to parents/guardians. “Thanks so much to those of you who have kept the school informed. Please continue to let us know of any new developments so we can make decisions as we move forward.”

During a telephone interview Friday morning with the R-C News-Herald, Jernigan said she has spoken with the students/staff who have tested positive.

“I’ve checked on them and they’re fine,” Jernigan stated, “plus our parents are sending me texts if one of our students or someone in their family tests positive for the virus.

“All we can do at this point is keep them in our prayers for a complete recovery and be ready to welcome them and the rest of our students and staff back to school on Jan. 4,” Jernigan added.

The BACA principal said she strongly believes none of the cases were spread while the students/staff were in school.

“We do not have any control on what our students/staff do once they leave our campus,” she said. “We have had several positive cases reported after we first closed the school last week. Several more came in on Monday and Tuesday of this week; that’s also at a time when we were closed.”

Jernigan stressed that she and her staff have been diligent in their daily duties to perform wellness checks on each student as they arrive on campus.

“I’m at the main entrance each and every morning; I greet each child and hold the door open for them to enter,” she noted. “Each child then immediately washes their hands and has their body temperature taken. Once that takes place, each child has a sticker placed on their clothing to alert their teachers that all wellness protocol has been met and the child can attend class that day.”

She added that areas within the school are sanitized multiple times each day, and that the students wash their hands repeatedly.

“We feel like we’ve done what we needed to do to keep this virus out of our school,” Jernigan said. “When we found out about the first three cases during the week of Thanksgiving we immediately extended our holiday break by an additional week [until Dec. 7] in an effort to keep our students and staff safe and healthy. Now with the number of positive cases growing, at a time when we’re not in school, we decided to close our school for the remainder of the semester.”

That closure also impacts athletics as the 2020-21 basketball season was about to start.

“We had four opponents on our schedule for the month of December; all of those games have been canceled, as well as all of our practices,” Jernigan said.

As for the 174 PreK-12 students enrolled at the school, there will be no virtual/remote learning offered during their extended time away from class. Their second semester will begin on Jan. 4 at the same point where they stopped on Nov. 25.

Now that the number of confirmed cases at BACA exceeds five, the school is officially listed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as a cluster (outbreak).

Albemarle Regional Health Services (ARHS), which covers Bertie and other local counties, is also aware of the cluster at BACA.

“ARHS has reached out to Bethel Assembly Christian Academy to ensure their understanding of school guidance,” stated Amy C. Underhill, Healthy Communities Coordinator and Public Health Education Supervisor at ARHS. “[Governor Roy Cooper’s] Executive Order 180 now requires all schools, including private schools, to comply with the mask mandate and this is an important step to limit the spread of COVID. Ultimately, by abiding by NC Communicable Disease Control Law, following guidance based on studies and best practices, and enhancing communication between partners will ensure we are able to keep members of our community safe and healthy.

“ARHS supports our local schools, both private and public, and their goal for in-person learning; however, in order to do so safely we must work together and ensure guidance is followed.” Underhill added.

The governor’s newest Executive Order became effective at 5 pm on Wednesday, Nov. 25. At that time, BACA students/staff were already on Thanksgiving break and the school closed until Dec. 7 (now extended until Jan. 4).

Jernigan said the use of masks by students/staff was optional and has been that way since the school opened in August for the start of the 2020-21 academic year.

“We haven’t been in school since the governor change the mask mandate to include private schools. Any changes in the way we follow that mandate will be addressed when we start back January,” Jernigan concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal