Evidence of community COVID spread in Chatham schools still scant

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Twenty-seven public and private schools in and around the Triangle have active COVID-19 clusters, according to this week’s state health department’s child care and school settings report, updated every Tuesday.

Chatham was among them — last week with one cluster at Northwood High School, which was later deemed to be erroneous and removed, and this week with one cluster at Chatham Central documented by Chatham County Schools on its coronavirus dashboard during the second week of classes.

Northwood was removed from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ report last Wednesday, after Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek said the cluster information was mistakenly reported to DHHS.

“It was an error on our part,” Zelek told the News + Record on Friday. “We misclassified it in the state system as a cluster and thought we fixed it, but it ended up being included in the report. We followed up and DHHS updated the report.

“No clusters have been identified this school year at Northwood,” he said.

The DHHS report lists five associated cases with the Chatham Central cluster. The News + Record previously reported that the cluster had nine associated cases, due to the formatting of the district’s dashboard. While there were nine cases at Chatham Central reported during the second week of classes, only five of those cases were associated with the cluster.

A cluster is defined as five or more cases that are epidemiologically related within a 14-day window, not just five or more cases in the same building.

As cases of COVID-19 among young people rise in the state and county, the low number of clusters — and of associated cases — at CCS suggests the safety mitigation strategies in place at the district are preventing community spread. The county’s charter schools — Willow Oak Montessori, Woods Charter School and Chatham Charter School — have not had any clusters listed in the state report, and also have indoor mask mandates. Woods and Chatham Charter also have COVID-19 trackers on their websites.

In Chatham, 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 — will play a huge role in allowing in-person classes and activities to continue.

“We believe this is prudent, we believe this is defensible, we believe that this makes sense right now for our kids, and could help us have as close to a normal school year as we possibly can,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson said of the district’s universal mask recommendation on Aug. 5. “... We’re confident that we can at least get school started — support our staff, give our teachers a safe place, give our kids as normal a place as possible, with the exception of one thing: they will have to wear a face covering.”

The CCS Board of Education again voted to require universal masking on all its campuses at its Sept. 13 meeting, in accordance with state legislation requiring school boards to vote monthly on face mask requirements.

“Masking is slowing the spread of COVID,” Zelek, who has repeatedly supported the district’s mask mandate, said at that meeting. “They not only slow the spread of COVID, they keep kids in the classroom.”

A total of 188 people at Chatham County Schools have tested positive for COVID-19 since the district’s first day of school on Aug. 23, according to the district’s dashboard on Wednesday afternoon.

With more than 10,500 students and staff members, the number of positive cases since the beginning of the school year makes up 1.7% of the district’s total population. There are currently 8 active cases, the dashboard says.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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