COVID-19 cluster with eight associated cases reported at Northwood High School

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PITTSBORO — Northwood High School has a cluster involving seven associated COVID-19 cases, according to the Chatham County Schools case tracker dashboard as of Wednesday afternoon, including five cases reported on Friday and three reported this week.

There have been 259 cumulative cases of COVID-19 reported to Chatham County Schools since Aug. 23, according to the district’s case dashboard, making up 2.5% of the district’s total population. There are seven active cases.

The district said it couldn't confirm the origin of the cluster in order to protect the identity of infected students, but in a Friday email obtained by the News + Record, the Northwood Band Director Jason Freeman said there'd been a cluster of five COVID-19 cases reported within the band.

"It would be irresponsible on our part to compete this weekend with so many undiagnosed illnesses," Freeman wrote in the Friday email addressed to "Marching Chargers." 

"Currently we have 5 reported cases (and) we also have a bunch of students also battling different illnesses (colds, allegies, etc.)," he said. "We want to keep everyone as safe as possible. If you have any questions or concerns feel free to reach out to me. I'll answer what I know, and (am) allowed to share. If you're able to be tested this weekend please do so and send the results to myself or the front office."

One parent — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to not embarass their child — said they found out about the positive cases much earlier in the week from other parents. The parent is concerned that with the loose mask-protocols necessary at a band competition,  more students than those notified by the school would qualify as "close contacts."

The district defines a close contact as someone “within 3 to 6 feet of an infected person and incorrect mask use.” Effectively, that means schools will only notifiy those who had been within 3 to 6 feet of an infected person, and at some point also did not properly wear a mask.

"We understand questions have also arisen around the district's protocol when there are positive cases," CCS Public Information Officer Nancy Wykle told the News + Record in an email Monday. "The district notifies families whose students had close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. If parents have questions or concerns, they should contact their school principal or reach out to our Central Services staff."

Bradford Walston, Northwood's principal, said the school has made it clear what the expectations are for masking, sanitizing and social distancing. If students are not wearing their masks correctly or are not following safety guidelines, staff members will correct them, he said.

"We appreciate parents raising concerns, and if they see a situation in which the guidelines for masking are not being followed, please let me know so I can address it," he said in an email statement to the News + Record. "Our number one priority is the safety of our students and staff while ensuring the continuation of strategies designed to keep students in the classroom."

CCS has only had one prior cluster — defined as five or more cases that are epidemiologically related within a 14-day window — at Chatham Central High School, reported during the second week of classes. A cluster at Northwood was included in the state health department’s child care and school settings report last month, but it was later deemed to be erroneous and removed. The current cluster at Northwood, added to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard Friday, marks the second cluster among the district’s schools.

The district follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's  recommended guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining, along with the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit and guidance from the Chatham County Public Health Department, Wykle said. She added that  any students exhibiting symptoms should not come to school until they are tested. 

Those state guidelines for quarantines say that if a student tests positive for COVID-19 but was masked, CCS will not enforce a two-week quarantine period for students potentially exposed to that student — so long as those students were also masked. If a student is determined to be a close contact, the quarantine period is 10 days. Vaccinated teachers don’t have to quarantine.

At CCS, officials have stressed since before the start of the school year that universal indoor masking — done properly, with the right type of mask covering both a person’s mouth and nose — would play a huge role in allowing in-person classes and activities to continue.

"We are very disheartened when any of our staff or students contract COVID-19," said Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson in an email statement on Monday. "We have established clear expectations for our students and staff related to masking indoors and on school transportation and maintaining appropriate distance when outside. These are all known strategies that help mitigate the spread of the virus and ensure our athletes and musicians continue to play together and stay together. I have asked all principals and organization sponsors to reiterate these expectations once again with students and staff."

As an additional mitigation strategy, the district is also set to phase in free weekly COVID-19 tests to students and staff, beginning with K-5 students next week. The rapid results tests, administered by Raleigh-based Mako Medical, are set to expand to middle schoolers the week of Nov. 1 and to high schoolers the week of Nov. 8. In order to be tested, a parent or guardian must provide a one-time consent for any student under 18, available through the links on the district’s website.

The district updates its weekly case reports, including any clusters, on its website daily, and posts finalized and archived reports by the end of the business day every Friday. Last year, the district reported minimal clusters, suggesting that cases present in school buildings were the result of community spread and not school spread. Health experts have long cited masking as an important mitigation strategy in preventing such school spread.

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