BOONE — Watauga County Schools nurses have conducted 64 investigations of symptomatic students, staff and close contacts of known positive cases in its first week of allowing in-person classes.

In an Oct. 9 email to WCS employees, Superintendent Scott Elliott said the school system had four new cases among staff and six new cases among students in the first week of students’ partial return to school buildings. He urged the community to “control what we can control to protect ourselves from this virus and to make it possible to keep our schools open.”

WCS nurses maintain records of any students or school employees who exhibit possible COVID-19 symptoms. Elliott said an “investigation” may take place when people do not pass the screening procedures when they enter the school, but most case investigations occur when someone self reports to the nurse.

“One thing that seems to be getting across to people is to monitor themselves and their children for COVID-19 symptoms and to immediately self-isolate if they are symptomatic or if they have been a close contact to a known positive,” Elliott said.

When a student or employee is identified COVID-19 positive, school nurses conduct interviews with the person to identify anyone who has been a close contact 48 hours prior to the positive test or the onset of symptoms. A close contact is defined as being within six feet of someone for a cumulative 15 minutes or longer in a 24-hour period. Elliott said the contact tracing process is vitally important in order to identify everyone who might have come in contact with an infected person to then stop or slow the chain of further transmission.

According to Elliott, the spike in school cases were the result of activities outside of school where health and safety precautions were not being followed.

“I know we all want life to be as normal as possible and we are all taking a risk in anything we do,” Elliott said. “But we can minimize our risks by wearing masks, keeping appropriate distance — including with each other at work — washing your hands, regularly monitoring yourself for symptoms and immediately self-quarantining when symptomatic or after a close contact.”

Elliott added that the biggest reason for the increase in case investigations and positive cases among school-age students last week was related to a community-based travel basketball program. Several athletes in the program were identified as being in close contacts to other students during outside of school activities, Elliott said. WCS suspended athletic practices in both football and basketball for one week to give school nurses time to thoroughly work through the contact tracing procedures as a precautionary measure.

The school system is requiring mandatory testing for athletes who are identified as close contacts and are in isolation. Athletes who are symptomatic are required to have a negative laboratory test rather than a rapid antigen test, or to be cleared by their doctor, before returning to play, according to Elliott. Athletes who have tested positive must test negative or be cleared by a doctor before coming back to play for the school.

Elliott said he is proud of the safeguards WCS coaches have put into place in school-based practices, as so far the school system has no known cases of transmission as a result of school-based athletics.

“The cases involving outside of school athletics made it clear how involved and connected our students and coaches are to one another even outside of school,” Elliott said. “The additional testing requirements I am implementing are an added safeguard intended to ensure that all athletes who are close contacts go get tested whether they are symptomatic or not.”

In the email, Elliott reminded employees that free tests can be obtained from AppHealthCare, and that several providers in the area are providing “rapid” antigen tests for a cost. However, he advised those who are symptomatic or concerned about being a close contact to get the “more reliable laboratory test” from AppHealthCare or a medical provider.

Going forward, students or employees who are actively symptomatic and have a negative antigen test result will also need to provide either a negative laboratory test result or a note from a medical provider before returning to school, according to Elliott.

“This is to provide further safeguards that a COVID-19-positive person does not return to school due to a false negative antigen test,” Elliott said.

Elliott reiterated that while other school systems are moving forward with Plan A — with full attendance — for grades K-5, WCS does not plan to do so at this time. School officials continue to implement a Plan B operation on a 2x2 flex plan — a hybrid in-person and remote learning schedule — while also monitoring the impact of local cases on school operations.

In conversations with other superintendents across the state and in the region, Elliott said most school systems are not posting a regular dashboard update. Instead, they are notifying the public of any clusters of cases in schools as well as notifying close contacts — which WCS plans to do as well.

Rather than a dashboard, Watauga County Schools plans to post a COVID-19 update with an infographic of data each Friday. The information can be found at www.wataugaschools.org/Page/4481.

“While our numbers are currently relatively low, I want to share information with the public to help reassure our community that we are working hard to monitor and address suspected cases in order to prevent further spread at school,” Elliott said.

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