With COVID-19 cases at an all-time high among students and staff, and a handful of schools on the verge of temporary closure, Moore County Schools has reinstated its indoor face covering requirement for students, staff and visitors.
Moore County Schools reported 188 new student infections last week, including active cases identified during the winter break, requiring 364 quarantines. That’s up from 26 new infections and 96 quarantines during the final week of school in December. Case numbers in the schools were already on the rise when the board voted for a mask-optional policy last month.
On Monday alone the district recorded 95 new cases among students and 20 among staff members.
“To be very honest, with the kind of numbers that we’re seeing now, I don’t remember a heavier day of COVID than what we have had today. Today. This morning,” Seth Powers, Moore County Schools’ director for students support services, told the school board during its work session on Monday.
COVID-19 cases among staff, and related quarantines, now have four schools in danger of having to move to remote learning: McDeeds Creek, Pinehurst Elementary, Vass-Lakeview and Southern Middle. On Monday, Pinehurst Elementary reported that positive cases had forced the closure of one second-grade classroom and two third-grade classrooms.
Moore County Schools has struggled throughout the year to fill teaching positions. Fewer people have been willing to work as substitutes during the pandemic, so that’s significantly added to teachers’ workload as many work through their planning period to cover other classes.
“Our case right now we’re getting to the place where we have teachers that may have been exposed — they’re asymptomatic, they’re healthy, but they have to be at home,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey. “But if they teach remotely, they’re available. If they don’t teach remotely, they’re not available. So that’s when remote learning becomes our best vehicle for that particular school for those particular days to keep learning happening.”
Moore County Schools closed three schools — Southern Pines Elementary, McDeeds Creek and Robbins — at various times during the 2020-2021 school year to arrest the spread of COVID-19. Each of those schools was closed for a two-week period.
Tim Locklair, Moore County Schools’ chief officer for academics and student support services, said that the district is considering shorter-term closures than that.
Christoph Diasio, a pediatrician with Sandhills Pediatrics and president of the N.C. Pediatric Society, endorsed the school district’s return to requiring face coverings as part of what’s being called a “Swiss cheese” approach to fighting the spread of COVID-19.
“Each little thing we do helps us fight COVID. So spacing people out helps us a little bit, wearing masks helps a little bit, wearing better masks helps a little more,” said Diasio.
“It's important not to make perfect the enemy of good when we’re looking at mitigation methods against this terrible disease that’s created so much suffering. As a matter or fact, children have gotten desperately ill with this.”
According to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data, 90 of the COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals in North Carolina in the first week of January were under the age of 18.
“A child’s death or severe hospitalization is a unique kind of horror we try to prevent as parents and pediatricians,” Diasio said. “If parents have older children that are able to wear an N95 mask, we’d encourage them to do that, but it's certainly better to have something than nothing.”
Monday’s decision to revert to mask-required had more to do with new guidelines from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services than the surge in cases itself. Those updates loosened isolation and post-exposure quarantine requirements, but only in school districts that require masks.
Updates to the state’s “toolkit” of pandemic protocols for schools made late last week included policies allowing students to remain in school after being exposed to COVID-19. As long as they remain asymptomatic, those students can be admitted to school with a negative test result whether or not they’ve been vaccinated.
The school board had just moved to a mask-optional policy in December, for the final week of school before winter break.
Discrepancies in policies regarding COVID-19-positive students and staff, versus those who were simply exposed to the virus, occupied much of the board’s discussion on Monday. The health department also takes vaccination status, or whether or not an exposed student or staff member has recovered from the virus within 90 days of exposure, into account when determining quarantine orders.
Currently the state requires students who test positive for COVID-19, or who are presumed positive based on symptoms, to isolate for five days and wear a mask for at least five days upon returning to school. In schools where face coverings are optional, the same policy applies to those who are exposed to the virus.
“The change there is that in the past it’s been a 10-day isolation period with no opportunity to return earlier, if you’re positive,” Powers said.
Officials with the Moore County Health Department, who have the final say in ordering quarantines and isolations, told the school board on Monday that they were prepared to maintain the previous 10-day isolation requirement for positive students and staff if the board maintained its mask-optional policy.
“How do we bring a positive individual back into the school and ask them to wear a mask in an optional mask setting for the remainder of their illness?” said Melissa Fraley, the health department’s director of nursing. “Our thoughts are, as well, we should allow them to isolate for the full 10 days, and that is our recommendation here.”
Interim Health Director Matt Garner said that his department’s quarantine orders would align more closely with the state’s guidelines if the district were to require masks.
“You guys over there at the health department are really controlling things, because if we go mask-optional, you’re saying it’s going to cost our students an additional five days, and we’re going to go even farther than the CDC requires,” said board member Robert Levy. “So you’d better be mask-mandatory, otherwise your kids are going to suffer.”
The task of enforcing mask requirements ultimately falls largely on teachers. So when masks are optional they also end up with the burden of recalling which students have returned from quarantine within the last five days and would therefore be required to wear a mask.
“A mask-required environment allows our teachers and our staff to focus more on learning and teaching and not having to manage … who's required to wear a mask at this time,” said Locklair.
During Monday’s work session, Vice Chair Libby Carter expressed frustration that schools are one of few remaining settings in the position of enforcing mask use and quarantines.
“The spread is going to continue as long as they’re getting together, and they’re going to congregate and get together. So we’re putting the schools between a rock and a hard place in making us responsible for all their activities, regardless of whether they are school-sanctioned activities,” she said.
“It’s a no-win situation. I think we punish our children, keeping the masks on them, and yet I understand your guidelines about the isolation and the quarantines. We may slow it a little bit, but we’re sure not going to stop the spread.”
By the end of the day Monday, the board voted both to require masks again for all students and staff until at least mid-February and to voluntarily maintain the full 10-day isolation period for COVID-19 positive students and staff.
That was one of two add-ons suggested by board member David Hensley following Carter’s motion to reinstate the indoor face covering requirement.
Both, the other directing administrators to move toward test-to-stay policies for exposed individuals, were unanimously adopted by the five board members present. Stacey Caldwell and Philip Holmes were not in attendance.
“Really what this amendment does is it keeps people that we know are sick, that we know have COVID-19 — not think, but know —it keeps them out of our ecosystem for the duration that they’re contagious, which is what we should do,” said Hensley.
“If we allow the second part of that, which sounds like it’s allowed, then the vast majority of (exposed) students that we are unnecessarily keeping away from school can attend school, which is what our goal is.”
Students may have to wait four to five days to receive a result after being tested on campus. Officials say the wait has increased from less than a day due to a high volume of tests since returning from winter break.
The final motion to require masks passed 3-2, with Hensley and Levy opposed. The state requires school boards to reconsider face covering policies on a monthly basis, so the board will revisit its mask mandate during its Feb. 14 meeting.