‘An abundance of caution’

Chatham Charter pauses in-person learning due to COVID-19 case

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This story has been updated with additional information obtained by the News + Record on Oct. 27 and again on Oct. 28 from Chatham Charter School's administration.

SILER CITY — Just 12 days after Chatham Charter School began phasing in a return to in-person learning, the school paused all face-to-face instruction and athletic workouts on Oct. 18 through at least Friday, Oct. 30. Now, the school has announced it will remain in fully remote instruction for grades K-12 through Dec. 18, which marks the end of the first semester.

"Administration will review conditions the week of November 9th to consider whether students of concern may be able to come to campus on a limited basis as they have done earlier in the semester," read the Oct. 28 email announcement, which was sent to Chatham Charter families and staff.

All the information sent in that email was discussed at a faculty meeting on Tuesday afternoon and finalized Wednesday morning, said Beth McCullough, the school's director of secondary programs and communications. The original decision to pause in-person learning was made “out of an abundance of caution,” McCullough told the News + Record on Friday, after the administration was notified that “an individual with a connection to the school” had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Today I became aware of a second case tied to close contact with the original individual,” McCullough wrote in an email statement Monday, prior to the school's Oct. 28 statement documenting their decision to remain closed through the semester. Last week, the school only knew of one additional individual with a positive test who may have been in close contact with the initial individual — bringing the total reported positive case count to three individuals.

Up to Oct. 18, only K-5 students had returned to school at Chatham Charter; kindergartners started in-person learning Oct. 7, with 1st- through 5th-grade students returning the following week. Older students were set to return last Monday.

“The administrative team immediately held a virtual meeting, consulted with the Chatham County Health Department, out of an abundance of caution chose to pause face-to-face instruction and athletic workouts through at least Friday, October 30,” McCullough said on Friday.

Chatham Charter administration staff communicated their decision later that Sunday, McCullough said, first with faculty and staff and then with families and students.

Located in Siler City, Chatham Charter is a K-12 public charter school that is unaffiliated with Chatham County Schools. That school district sent PreK students, K-2 students and Extended Content Standard E.C. students back to hybrid learning on Oct. 19. There have been 12 reported positive cases among CCS staff and zero among students, according to the district’s COVID-19 Tracking webpage; no public statement had been made by the district at the time this edition went to print. As of now, the remainder of CCS students will continue under the remote learning Plan C option until Jan. 15, though the board has recently indicated that decision could change.

In the email message sent to Chatham Charter families in staff on Wednesday, the school said  it would be providing extra support and encouragement to students and families through "the Knights on a Crusade Brigade," made up of 13 staff members who have already been helping in alternate roles during the semester. Some of the plans for that group includes contacting students "who may benefit from extra attention and encouragement," the mailing of "a supportive note and small gift" to families and a drive-thru holiday campus parade in December.

"This decision was not made lightly," that email notice said. "Many aspects were carefully considered including impacts on academics, families, and social/emotional wellness. Ultimately, the health and safety factors for all school stakeholders and those with whom they are in contact both inside and outside of school weighed heaviest."

According to the email, all Chatham Charter athletics are postponed until at least after Nov. 11. School pictures are postponed as well.

Chatham Charter has not reported any clusters of cases. According to the state’s COVID-19 Clusters in North Carolina Report, there have been 38 reported clusters in K-12 schools as of last Monday, with 295 total associated cases. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services defines clusters in non-congregate living settings as:

• A minimum of five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period and

• Plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases (meaning cases should be present in the same general setting during the same time period)

So far, there has not been clear guidance given to schools by the state in terms of how many cases should require temporary school closure. Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper announced public K-5 schools could return completely under Plan A, which allows schools to operate at full capacity. Most health officials have said cases of COVID-19 of school community members are inevitable upon reopening, and suggested the school’s focus should be on preventing clusters through contact tracing of known positive cases and maintained distancing and mask-wearing during the school day.

The fact that Chatham Charter paused in-person learning for what appeared to be a singular case, then, does seem to be very cautious.

“Though the state and local protocols only require that anyone who may have been in close contact with the individual stay home from school for 14 days, the administration also took into consideration the recent rise in cases across the state and nation in making its decision,” McCullough said at the time of the original decision.

The week before the postive case, the state saw record highs of daily new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations, with Oct. 15 and 16 setting consecutive high marks. Chatham County’s numbers have appeared to plateau though, according to Interim Health Director Mike Zelek and data on the county’s coronavirus dashboard.

McCullough told the News + Record on Friday that Chatham Charter has worked closely with local health officals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and would continue to do so, following state guidelines published in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12).

"Administration is hopeful for a return to face-to-face instruction early in the second semester of the school year,"  Wednesday's email said. "The state of the COVID-19 pandemic at that point will be a deciding factor in determining school status."

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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