No new COVID-19 cases from Northwood High School cluster

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There have been 264 cumulative cases of COVID-19 reported to Chatham County Schools since Aug. 23 and two clusters, according to the district’s case dashboard on Wednesday, making up 2.5% of the district’s total population.

There are two active cases.

The district reported its second cluster at Northwood High School on Oct. 22, which had eight associated cases and originated in the high school’s marching band, the News + Record previously reported. 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.

“We are very disheartened when any of our staff or students contract COVID-19,” CCS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson said via email last 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.”

One parent raised concerns after news of the cluster at Northwood broke about who qualifies as a “close contact,” given the loose mask-protocols necessary at a band competition. 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 notify 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 previously told the News + Record. “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.”

The district follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining, along with the Strong Schools N.C. Public Health Toolkit and guidance from the Chatham County Public Health Department.

There haven’t been any clusters reported among the county’s public charter schools — Willow Oak Montessori, Woods Charter School and Chatham Charter School — in the state report. Each school also has an indoor mask mandate, and Woods and Chatham Charter have COVID-19 trackers on their websites. Woods has had eight student cases since Aug. 23; Chatham Charter has had 20 student cases and one case among staff since Aug. 11.

Chatham County Schools 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.

As an additional mitigation strategy, the district has phased in free weekly COVID-19 tests to students and staff, beginning with K-5 students last week. The rapid results tests, administered by Raleigh-based Mako Medical, are set to expand to middle schoolers this week 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.

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

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