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Student quarantine numbers up, but not more than expected

SALISBURY — Quarantine numbers are up in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, but school officials say they expected that.

On Monday, Associate Superintendent Kelly Withers told the RSS Board of Education an increase was expected when the district returned to school four days per week because the definition for exposure did not change.

Students who spend 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who turns out to be infected are told to stay home for 10 days. With more students in the building at once and less social distancing, more of them meet the criteria to quarantine.

The increase in quarantines follows the return of middle and high school students. On April 9, the day after they returned four days, student quarantines were less than 250. A week later the number climbed to 322, and as of Friday quarantines had jumped to 589, or 4.07% of students.

Staff quarantines have dropped since January and stayed low. As of Friday only 22 staff were quarantined.

Board member Bryan Hightower asked Withers if the growing quarantine number concerns her. Withers said the district has been concerned all year and expected this.

Hightower, former East Rowan head baseball coach, pointed to the North Carolina High School Athletics Association recommendation of a seven-day quarantine after exposure with a negative test result.

The current policy for the local health department is for quarantines to be 10 days.

“The reason why they can’t come back to practice or go to school is because they’re not at school, because they’re quarantined 10 days instead of seven days,” Hightower said.

Hightower pushed for allowing in-person students to be allowed to complete the rest of the semester remotely to allow students to avoid being quarantined and not being able to participate in extracurriculars.

Board member Travis Allen pointed to the pattern of student quarantines over the previous few months being up and down back to November when students were split into cohorts.

“It’s just the ebb and flow of how this thing goes,” Allen said. “I hate it too. I hate the athletes missing out on it. It bothers me.”

Allen said education is the board’s priority, but he recognizes extracurriculars are important to some students and a driving force for keeping them in school.

Board member Dean Hunter said all of the district’s students have been hurting for the past year.

“They’ve all suffered in different ways at some point,” Hunter said.

Hunter pointed out from Dec. 11 to Feb. 12 there were an average of 568 quarantines and  that just because infections have increased does not mean those cases were contracted at schools.

On Tuesday, the district confirmed to the Post there are 105 quarantines and five positive cases at Knox Middle School, but the cases do not create an epidemiologically linked cluster, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Education is the most important thing here,” Hightower said, adding he is getting messages from parents asking if their child can stay home and still play.

Board attorney Ken Soo said the Department of Health and Human Services requires school districts to follow its guidance on quarantines.

Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district has to submit documentation to the state showing it is following required guidelines.

Soo confirmed the state requires seven days of quarantine with a negative test, but gives deference to local health authorities.  Withers said the local health department is able to be more restrictive and has maintained the 10-day requirement. The district will adjust to new recommendations, she said.

Watlington said allowing some in-person students to not come to school would be an attendance issue with the state.

Each high school is handling its own all-virtual learning. Withers said all students are required to take end-of-course tests in-person.

“Changing it back up seems to be going in the completely wrong direction,” Chair Kevin Jones said, adding if someone on a team tests positive there will be quarantines anyway.

Hightower made a motion to allow students to continue to play sports even if they are not in school. Hunter seconded, saying he was interested in discussing if it was even possible. Watlington and Soo said they would have to look into it. The motion failed.

In other news from the meeting:

• The board approved alternate calendar for Salisbury and East Rowan high schools. Salisbury will have a late start for students on Wednesday for professional development. The East Rowan calendar will include additional elearning days, about one per month, for experiential education outside of the school.

• The board viewed a policy update that will apply to bus drivers clarifying the federal requirement for drug test data to be entered into a national database and the addition of CBD product use not being a defense for testing positive for marijuana use on a drug test.

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