Little evidence of community spread at CCS, but wary educators, parents keep close watch

Posted 9/8/21

A total of 134 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 COVID-19 dashboard as of Monday morning, including one cluster of nine associated cases at Chatham Central High School documented during the second week of classes.

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Little evidence of community spread at CCS, but wary educators, parents keep close watch

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A total of 134 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 COVID-19 dashboard as of Monday morning, including one cluster of nine associated cases at Chatham Central High School documented during the second week of classes.

With more than 10,500 students and staff members, the number of positive cases since the beginning of the school year makes up 1.3% of the district’s total population. There are currently only 7 active cases, the dashboard says, or .06% of the population. The district tracks all reported positive cases — not just clusters. A cluster is defined as five or more cases that are epidemiologically related, not just five or more cases in the same building.

There is currently scant evidence of community spread of COVID-19 at CCS, likely due in part to the district’s mitigation strategies — namely, universal indoor masking. Still, as the more contagious Delta variant continues to spread, some are worried about what such trends could mean for schools.

“I mostly hope that we can stay in school and that we don’t have another outbreak or something this winter with the Delta variant,” Northwood High School junior Oliver Ewy told the News + Record after CCS’s first week of classes. “That’s something that does worry me — that we’re gonna go back online again. I could deal with that, but I would prefer to stay in school.”

In North Carolina, people ages 14 and under make up 11% of total positive COVID-19 cases, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard as of last Wednesday; in Chatham, that same age group makes up 9% of total cases. Nationally, children and teen COVID-19 rates are rising to rates not seen since the pandemic’s winter surge. For the majority of school-aged children, getting vaccinated is currently not an option; only people 12 and up are currently able to get vaccinated in the U.S.

Since the start of school, a few CCS teachers confidentially expressed concerns to the News + Record regarding concerning COVID-19 trends. Though CCS doesn’t currently show much community spread, within the county, cases have drastically increased over the last month. And for the first time in three months, Chatham residents are dying because of COVID-19, the News + Record reported last week.

Some teachers expressed concern with the district’s lunch protocol. Students have a 30-minute lunch period, but are strongly encouraged to eat in 15 minutes or less, with no talking while eating inside until masks are back on. That 15-minute window isn’t always strictly enforced, those teachers said. The district previously said it’s up to the individual discretion of a school principal whether students at that school eat lunch in the cafeteria, classrooms or outside.

As COVID trends have worsened in the last couple months, some parents are also concerned about the safety of in-person learning, even as most desire for their students to learn in person. Following more than a year of COVID-19-related obstacles, there’s a strong communal desire to stay in schools — but to do so safely.

A new survey funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and released last week found that from a sample of 1,448 public school parents and guardians showed many parents — especially Black and Hispanic parents — are worried enough about the Delta variant that they’d rather keep their children home to learn remotely, at least part time. The survey was released by the National Parent Teacher Association Sept. 1 and was funded by the CDC through the Atlanta-based nonprofit CDC Foundation.

Only 43% of parents surveyed wanted full-time in-person school for their students, following the CDC’s updated guidance on July 27 to account for the Delta variant. Before that guidance, 58% of those surveyed said they wanted their children in a classroom full time this year.

Among Black parents, 41% said they wanted a full-time in-person program after July 27, the survey found, compared with 43% of parents overall. For Hispanic parents, that figure fell to 37 percent.

“It’s not just that parents aren’t OK,” Adam Burns, a partner at Edge Research, who led the nationwide parent survey released last week, told NBC News. “They’ve been not-OK for about 18 months.”

Nationally, some parents are concerned that their district is no longer offering a robust remote-only program, or only offering it to a select group of students. At CCS, the school’s virtual academy is open to all students, but requires a semester-long commitment, meaning in theory that the earliest students could move from in-person to virtual would be next semester. About 210 CCS students are enrolled in the virtual academy, the district previously said, compared to more than 2,000 last year.

In Chatham, CCS officials have stressed 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 still have the mask mandate for school, and I really appreciate that,” Ewy told the News + Record, “I was thinking over the summer, ‘Oh, I really hope they keep that in place.’ Because I know I wouldn’t have felt super safe if they weren’t requiring it, so I’m glad they have it.”

The district does not have any predetermined threshold of district COVID-19 cases or community spread that would move classes temporarily online, though under state legislation, it has the authority to make such decisions. Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Janice Frazier previously told the News + Record a move online would likely only take place if positive cases led the district to be too understaffed to carry out school services.

Are you a student, parent or employee at CCS? Reach out with questions, thoughts or coverage ideas you’d like to see regarding this school year at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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

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