Weathering COVID’s storm

Published 5:55 pm Friday, January 14, 2022

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As the number of active cases of COVID-19’s omicron variant continues to surge across the Roanoke-Chowan area, local school officials are keeping a close eye on that increase.

Hertford County and Northampton County school officials say their classrooms will remain open for time being. Gates County Schools are reporting the largest number of students and staff currently in quarantine and will shift to remote learning for two days late next week.

There was no response from Bertie Public Schools to an email sent Thursday by this newspaper seeking information about the possibility of COVID-related issues there.

Hertford County Public Schools (HCPS) reported that, as of the current week (Jan. 10-14), 6 percent of its staff has tested positive for the virus and are in isolation. 3.6 percent of staff are currently in quarantine. Meanwhile, 3.1 percent of the student population have tested positive and are in isolation. 4.9 percent of HCPS students are in quarantine.

“We believe our numbers are as low as they are because our school board members have been consistent with the mask mandate for all schools in Hertford County,” said HCPS spokesperson Brunet Parker.

When asked if HCPS is at the point where short-term school closings / remote learning opportunities are needed, Parker replied, “As of now there is no data that confirms the change of the staff and students attendance from face to face to remote learning.”

In Northampton County, school officials there say they are weathering the COVID surge.

Dr. Del Burns, Interim Superintendent for Northampton County Schools, reported that the district is continuing to follow the procedures and protocols laid out in the North Carolina Schools Toolkit to keep students and staff safe, even as the number of COVID-19 cases surges locally and across the state.

“Our students and our staff all wear masks,” Burns said, noting that the Northampton Board of Education has continued to approve the implementation of a mask mandate.

In addition to wearing masks, staff also have the option to wear face shields or to double mask. In the classrooms, students have individual plexiglass dividers on their desks to keep them separated from other students.

Burns also stated that buildings are disinfected daily by the district’s maintenance staff, and extra sanitization is done when there are instances of virus exposure. Because of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, other sanitization methods that were previously performed weekly will be done more frequently than before.

As of January 13, Burns said the district had a total of 31 self-reported positive cases.

“Substitutes [teachers] are in high demand,” Burns said of one big impact the continued pandemic is having on the school district.

Another impact, he said, is an increased need for PPE (personal protective equipment). The district still has a good supply, Burns explained, but they’re going through it more quickly than before.

The interim superintendent said he has had meetings with the district’s nurses, principals, and athletic directors recently in order to review health and safety procedures and ensure that protocols continue to be followed in all areas.

“We’re continuing to monitor not only the conditions, but also our response. We’ll make any necessary changes as we go forward,” he concluded.

Gates County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barry Williams said approximately 30-to-40 percent of the student population have missed instructional days during the past few weeks.

Williams noted the following numbers as of Jan. 14 (quarantine numbers include positive cases, direct exposures, and symptomatic individuals):

T.S. Cooper Elementary: 3 active cases / 30 quarantined students;

Gatesville Elementary: 13 active cases / 26 quarantined students;

Buckland Elementary: 7 active cases / 25 quarantined students;

Central Middle School: 23 active cases / 48 quarantined students; and

Gates County High School: 20 active cases / 32 quarantined students.

Also, as of Jan. 14, Williams said 12 members of the Gates County Schools staff have active cases of the virus and 22 are quarantined.

“Recent faculty absences have had a large impact on our schools when trying to cover classes during teacher absences,” Williams said. “Covering classes becomes even more difficult when you consider the shortage of available substitutes.”

On Thursday afternoon, Williams sent a message to all employees of Gates County Schools, saying that due to the rise in COVID positive cases, the system will switch from face-to-face instruction to remote learning on Thursday and Friday of next week (Jan. 20-21).

“This time will give our school system the ability to recuperate before beginning our new semester,” Williams stated in the letter. “Reduced numbers in the buildings over the next week should decrease the possibility of new exposures and give time for additional cleaning opportunities.”

He added that the advance notice of the pending remote learning days will allow teachers the time necessary to prepare educational content for the students to use during their time away from the classroom.

On Jan. 7, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released an updated version of the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to align North Carolina guidance with recent changes to quarantine and isolation announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The updated toolkit also provides schools additional flexibility to offer a Test-to-Stay option in schools that require masks to be worn indoors by students and staff.

With the addition of a Test-to-Stay option, the list of scenarios for remaining in the classroom following a COVID-19 exposure is expanded to include unmasked exposures (e.g., when students are eating lunch).

As part of Test-to-Stay, the person who was exposed to COVID-19 should:

Get tested the day they are notified of an exposure;

Get tested again five days after the exposure (or as close to five days as possible);

Wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure and

Except for attending school, stay home and avoid others.