Quarantine problem bad, but school leaders say it could’ve been worse

By ELIOT DUKE
Of the Record staff
Posted 9/21/21

The Harnett County Schools Board of Education received a lot of pushback from parents when it elected to reinstitute a mask mandate last month for staff and students before the start of the new …

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Quarantine problem bad, but school leaders say it could’ve been worse

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The Harnett County Schools Board of Education received a lot of pushback from parents when it elected to reinstitute a mask mandate last month for staff and students before the start of the new school year.

While the decision managed to upset some parents, who opposed the mandate, the board may have avoided an even bigger mess.

A key reason why the board overturned its previous vote to make masks optional centered around guidelines passed down to school systems in Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening toolkit. The toolkit laid out protocols for schools that declined the mandate and the resulting quarantine rules made it seemingly impossible to keep buildings open, leading the board to enact the mask requirement.

If the first month of school is any indication, HCS found itself lucky it didn’t have to close any campuses. Quarantines skyrocketed once staff and students returned to school as positive cases seemed to stay relatively consistent. Without the mask mandate in place and no option for remote learning available, quarantines may have left HCS with very few options.

“Without the masks our quarantines would be higher,” HCS Superintendent Aaron Fleming said. “Our positive numbers are not terrible. They’re high, but they’re not terrible. Our quarantines are because, unfortunately, our teachers want to walk around the room and interact with the students.”

Under current quarantine protocols, if two students are wearing masks regularly and they’re not in close contact with each other at lunch or the gym and one tests positive, the other doesn’t have to isolate. If masking wasn’t followed, the exposed student is quarantined for up to 14 days. For student to adult transmission, if a teacher, who tests positive, stayed in front of the classroom and maintained 6-feet of social distancing from students, children wouldn’t need to be quarantined.

“We’re aware of the high numbers and we’re sharing this more and more with principals,” said Fleming. “What’s happening is if you get a teacher who is positive and if they walk all over the room all day, you’ve knocked 90 to 100 kids out depending on how many kids you have over a class school day. You’ve got three periods at 30 kids a class, you’ve knocked 90 kids out. That’s where those numbers are coming from. The only way you’re going to keep kid quarantines down are teachers not walking around the room when they’re positive. Obviously, they don’t know they’re positive.”

HCS Assistant Superintendent Jermaine White announced a slew of new testing procedures expected to arrive in the district over the next few weeks that should help identify positive cases quicker and hopefully cut down on quarantine times. HCS partnered with a state-affiliated medical services provider that promised PCR testing results back in 24 hours, a pledge administrators feel could trim down quarantines to as little as a couple days.

“The quarantines are still an issue and what we’re trying to change is our testing mechanism,” HCS School board member Jason Lemons said. “We’ve received more clarification and new science and it’s no longer 14 days. It still could be 14 days but there is more involvement with the nursing staff and the health care professionals. It’s a little different, but we think anywhere from four and six days is the average for a person being out if they tested positive. The reason that is important is we want to make sure our kids aren’t coming back to school too early. We want to make sure that if they can we want them back as soon as possible so they don’t miss any classroom time.”

Overhills High School posed the most realistic threat to classroom instruction when a string of positive cases and resulting quarantines right before the Labor Day holiday weekend strained the campus’ ability to stay open. With remote learning now an option for school systems again, and the expanded access to testing coming soon, Fleming said HCS should be able to get a better grip on the number of quarantines system-wide.

“I’m never going to tell a nurse, OK, you think a kid should quarantine seven days and I want you to do it in five,” said Fleming. “We’re not going to do it. That’s what is making parents mad is that the quarantines sometimes are long and I completely understand. People don’t like all the numbers and they think it’s inconsistent, but it’s just a lot of days. The parent’s frustration comes from the call to come get their child. We should have PCR testing and in theory you can test a lot more people and have a lot less quarantines.”

Lemons cited Union County as a situation he would like to avoid. Union County reported recently that more than a quarter of its staff were out due to COVID-19 compared to 14% in HCS, with numbers declining over the past two weeks.

“The concerns we had [in August] were the numbers were going up and in our surrounding counties and amongst children,” Lemons said. “The numbers are not going up as much as they were. What we’re finding is the average child doesn’t need 14 days. If the child was only exposed, we don’t need them out for 14 days if they don’t test positive. We can actually reduce that amount of time. It makes it so our kids and our teachers can come back.”

High school sports, particularly football, returned with the new school year, but Lemons said he would like to reach a point where all other extracurricular activities such as band and clubs can do the same. Once mask wearing become optional on Oct. 5, Fleming said he hopes cases don’t spike again.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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