By Anna Phillips | October 23, 2020 at 7:25 PM EDT – Updated October 23 at 8:55 PM
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – New Hanover County Schools reached the end of two weeks with students back in class Friday; inevitably, cases of COVID-19 have been identified in the district.
As kids have returned to in-person learning, many of the same questions are being raised about cases of COVID-19 in schools and who is and isn’t being notified.
We took your questions to try and get answers.
There are many misconceptions and rumors about how cases are handled, particularly if a school staff member or teacher tests positive.
Assistant Health Department Director Carla Turner believes the school district is doing a great job working with the health department when it comes to positive cases.
Some parents expect they would be notified if their child’s teacher tests positive, but that’s not generally true. If students and staff are wearing masks, staying six feet apart and following the recommended guidelines, their students may not meet the criteria of a ‘close contact’ as defined by the CDC. That definition doesn’t change just because it’s within a school.
While New Hanover County Schools posts case counts and quarantine numbers by school, only people identified as close contacts will be informed they’ve been exposed and will need to quarantine.
When a health department employee informs you you’ve been exposed, they will not tell you who the positive person is. That is private, protected health information.
“We are going to do it the same way in schools as we do out of schools and we are not going to identify the positive,” Turner said. “We’re just going to determine who their close contacts are. We’re going to let those close contacts know that they have potentially been exposed to a confirmed positive.”
Turner says students have the added benefit of their school nurses being public health department employees.
“They have access, quicker access I would say, to our staff in the building, our community health staff, our senior CE staff,” she said.
When students or staff test positive in the school system, they work with their school nurse and the health department.
“The school nurse then works with that positive to determine who their close contacts are at school,” Turner said. “Our staff [members] at the health department are going to work with a positive to determine their close contacts outside of school. So, our school nurse follows up with those in the school and our other staff follows up with those out of school.”
The CDC updated its guidelines this week to say it is now a cumulative 15 minutes of exposure to someone within six feet that counts as ‘close contact,’ rather than the former guideline which was 15 consecutive minutes or more. The state health department is currently working to issue updated guidance to the counties. Until that happens, the county will operate under the previous guidelines.
Anyone who tests positive receives information on quarantine policy from the facility where they were tested and again with a follow-up phone call from the health department, but beyond that there is little oversight, particularly if school staff members aren’t aware of someone’s positive result.
“We have to rely on people to do the right thing and share information and it’s important for people to remember that what we’re doing is not punitive,” Turner said. “We’re trying to slow the spread of COVID and the best way to do that is if you are a contact or if you have been exposed that you stay home so that you’re not exposing anybody else.”
Schools in other districts have already been set back to virtual-only learning after clusters were identified.
“There is a little bit of burden of responsibility on the students and the staff as well that they maintain that six-foot distance and they keep their mask on their face and they wash their hands frequently,” she said. “That is something that we all have to be held accountable for.”
Turner says that kind of decision must be made case-by-case.
“We don’t want to tell the school system what they have to do,” she said. “We want to partner with the school system, share the information we have, and share the information they have together to make the best decision for the students and the staff.”
New Hanover County Schools sent a statement in response to this story:
“The district is working closely with the New Hanover County Health Department to support their case identification and contact tracing efforts. See this page – https://www.nhcs.net/nhcsreadysetreturn/covid-19-cases – which describes the communications process. The case grid is currently updated weekly. “
Turner urges everyone to avoid conjecture and rumors.
“What we ask people is to put your faith in the system—the public health system and the school system,” she said. “We are doing everything we can because we want to protect those students. We want to protect that staff because they are a vital part of our community.”
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