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Editorial: Demand transparency, rapid response when COVID-19 cases arise in schools

There will be COVID-19 clusters in public schools in Rowan County as classes get underway. There’s no avoiding it.

But what matters most is how school officials respond in the moments immediately after a case is identified. Steps must be taken immediately to conduct contact tracing within the school and to isolate positive staff or students. Anything else risks turning five cases (the definition of a cluster) into 50.

School officials also must be transparent with the general public and parents. Because, while parents will understandably concerned if there’s even one case, not disclosing cases only makes things worse. An outbreak at the Citadel nursing home on Julian Road quickly became the largest in the state, a significant-enough problem on its own, but it was compounded by failures to communicate basic information to family members and the public.

Initial information about cases at North Hills Christian School appear to be an example of exactly how schools should handle positive cases.

The school on Tuesday was revealed to be the site of a cluster — a minimum of five cases — through the state’s biweekly update. And while five cases sounds concerning, the school appears to have found most of those cases by following proper protocols.

On Aug. 7, before students returned to the school’s campus, one staff member reported symptoms. And everyone who was in close contact with that person was required to quarantine. Four staff members tested positive while quarantined and none have been on campus since.

But North Hills Christian School is small compared to most in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools System and students have returned to classes at almost all local educational institutions, including colleges. The work of isolating students and staff will be much more cumbersome for public educators who work in schools with hundreds of students, each with parents or guardians who have varying attitudes about the seriousness of COVID-19. At local colleges, where many students are away from home for the first time, keeping positives to a minimum in the first place is a much larger hurdle.

As Catawba Dean of Students Jared Tice said in a story published online Tuesday (“Catawba Brings students back to campus with COVID-19 preparations in place”), it’s unnatural to ask young adults to make changes to socializing, but students should exercise responsibility.

Educators knew there would be positives when their respective educational institutions settled on plans to bring students back onto campus and into the classroom. It’s important for the public to realize that, too, and demand transparency when cases arise.

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