WATAUGA — Watauga County Schools is not seeing high rates of student absences and positivity rates that some neighboring counties are experiencing related to COVID-19.
WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said that in the first two weeks of school, 34 students and 13 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 127 students and five staff members had been placed in quarantine as of Aug. 27. In total, the week of Aug. 23 saw 369 COVID-19 related investigations by WCS nurses.
WCS has approximately 4,734 students and 720 staff.
In neighboring counties, COVID-19 is taking a toll on the school systems. The Ashe Post and Times reported on Aug. 25 that the 2021-22 school year for Ashe County Schools started with nearly 260 total individuals, both students and staff, out of school due to positive testing and quarantine for COVID-19.
Elliott attributed the lower rates of positivity rates to high vaccination numbers among staff and a growing number of students who are vaccinated.
“Fortunately, due to masks and vaccines, most close contacts have not had to go home for quarantines,” Elliott said. “Students who do have to quarantine are still able to join most class activities remotely. Even though we have quite a few students who have been in quarantine, we have seen very little evidence of secondary transmission at school. We suspect that we have had one student case of secondary transmission at school.”
Masks have been required for students and staff since the start of the school year on Aug. 16.
Elliott said the vast majority of positive cases are the result of transmission within families and at outside of school activities.
“With having all students back in school together at the same time and with all we have learned about the Delta variant, we anticipated that we would see more cases,” Elliott said. “We are doing everything we can to protect our students by providing as much social distance as possible and ensuring that everyone is wearing masks correctly. The most effective thing we can do to prevent the spread of the virus is to keep sick children at home.”
One area of concern for spread is at athletic events.
“While we have been pleased to see so many families and fans come out to watch athletic events, we are growing concerned about the number of close contacts among spectators at our outdoor athletic events,” Elliott said. “I continue to urge anyone who is not vaccinated to wear a mask when they cannot distance themselves from others, even when outdoors. Hopefully, by taking these precautions we can continue with athletics and keep everyone safe.”
The week of Aug. 23, the middle and high school football teams began wearing face masks during practice as they did last spring. The junior varsity and varsity squads are also kept separate and the coaches wear masks at all times.
Elliott said so far this has kept the school system from having to quarantine players. He said that there will be two COVID-19 vaccination events for students and staff at Watauga High School.
The first vaccination event will take place on Sept. 13 from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the second will be on Sept. 17 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Elliott said he hopes more athletes get vaccinated.
The school system is also placing new limitations on certain school activities in order to limit the number of visitors to our schools, which might look different at each school based on building and capacity limits.
“This might include limiting lunch time visitors and rescheduling fall festivals,” Elliott said. “Also, we will be moving some district wide meetings to either all remote or a remote-optional setting. I hope to resume normal activities as soon as possible and when community metrics improve.”
Another big challenge, Elliott said, is having enough staff to work in the cafeterias and to drive buses. He said WCS started the school with eight vacant cafeteria positions and six vacant bus driver positions.
Elliott said other staff members have stepped in to help cover the vacant positions, but that is only a temporary solution. He said anyone who is interested in taking a job within the school system can call any of the schools or apply at www.wataugaschools.org/ under careers.