SCS sees spike in COVID cases, quarantines as holidays near

With people gathering together for the holidays and spending more time inside due to colder weather, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across Stanly County — especially within the school system.

Stanly County Schools reported 49 positive cases for last week, up from the 31 two weeks ago, according to updated data from the district’s COVID-19 online dashboard.  It’s the highest tally since 61 cases were identified at the end of September.

West Stanly Middle had the highest number of cases with 12, followed by North Stanly Middle with eight and West Stanly High with six. Slightly more than half of the 23 schools had at least one positive case.

The state Department of Health and Human Services this week identified four schools as the sites of ongoing COVID-19 clusters, defined as five or more related cases at a facility within a 14-day period: West Stanly Middle, which had two clusters, West Stanly High, North Stanly High and Badin Elementary.

The totals reported by the state differ somewhat from the data from the school system’s dashboard, though this is likely because the district posts data from the previous week, while the state’s data represents the cumulative number of cases during the cluster and do not necessarily represent active cases, according to Doshia F. Swaringen, human services program specialist with the health department.

With an increase in cases came an uptick in school quarantines. The district reported 755 quarantines last week, of which 709 were students, an 81 percent increase from two weeks ago, when only 416 quarantines were confirmed. The total accounts for roughly eight percent of the estimated 9,400 students and staff across the district.

This is the second consecutive week quarantines have increased and marks the highest total since the first week of October, when 740 students and staff were out of school.

West Stanly Middle School had 132 people in quarantine, the highest total across the district. Other schools with high numbers of quarantines included Central Elementary with 85, Locust Elementary with 65, and North Stanly Middle and West Stanly High each with 58.

To illustrate how quickly the environment has changed, less than a month ago, for the week of Nov. 20-27, the district had 256 students and staff in quarantine and only four schools had 20 or more students in quarantine, the highest being Aquadale Elementary, with 47 people out of school.

While many schools saw their quarantine totals increase, 15 had more than 20 people in quarantine, and five schools — Stanly Academy Learning Center (1), Stanly STEM Early College (3), Oakboro Choice STEM (3), Stanly Early College (4) and Millingport Elementary (4) — each had less than 10.

COVID-19 increasing across Stanly and the state 

The sharp uptick in cases and quarantines within the school system mirrors a similar surge in new cases across the county. A total of 219 cases have been reported since last Friday, according to state health data, with an average of about 30 new cases a day. There are currently around 420 active cases within the county, an increase of 31 percent from last week’s tally of about 320 and the most since mid-October.

Seven people have died from the coronavirus in Stanly County so far this month and 12 people were hospitalized as of Thursday. Of the 220 people who have died since the pandemic began, eight were fully vaccinated.

Much of the increase in student COVID-19 positives and quarantine are likely the delayed results of families gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday, according to county health officials. Only 42 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state.

“Understanding what proportion of cases are linked to either household transmission or school-based transmission is dependent on the information provided by parents and guardians during case investigation, if they appropriately test for COVID-19 and whether layered mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, wearing a mask and vaccination, are followed across schools and classroom settings,” said Wendy Growcock, public health education specialist with the health department, and Liz Rodriguez, COVID-19 school health liaison.

Cases have also been increasing rapidly across North Carolina: 4,165 cases were reported on Thursday, the highest daily total in more than two months, and more than 1,600 people have been hospitalized this week, the most since late October, according to state health data.

Though the vast majority of cases in Stanly County and the state are still associated with the delta variant, the new omicron variant was first detected in the state late last week. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says omicron has now been reported in at least 36 states and 75 countries.

Discussions about tweaking quarantine protocols 

During the school board meeting last week, the topic of possibly changing or overhauling quarantine protocols was brought up with the board deciding it would meet early next month for a work session to discuss the issue more. Some members mentioned how the quarantine guidelines, which are highly technical, have not been consistently applied within each school.

“What’s happening is children are getting caught in the middle of this ignorance, it’s not intentional I don’t think and it may be driven by poor communication, but there is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed,” board member Anthony Graves said.

“We need to also make sure that we don’t put an undue economic hardship on families who are just trying to keep their kids in school,” he added.

Many nearby school districts that have also made masks optional are seeing large numbers of students and staff out of school due to possible exposure. Union County reported 152 positive cases and more than 2,000 people in quarantine last week while Cabarrus County had 160 cases and close to 800 students and staff in quarantine.

By comparison, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which still requires masks and has at least 150,000 students and staff, reported 237 positive cases and only 444 quarantines last week.