With classes starting today, health director updates RSS board on state of COVID-19

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2021

SALISBURY — With masks optional in Rowan-Salisbury Schools and restrictions otherwise still near their lowest point, classes begin today with COVID-19 cases on the rise.

Rowan County Health Director Alyssa Harris said the county has not begun to see children experience serious symptoms from the Delta variant of COVID-19, but more school-age children nationwide are getting sick or being hospitalized. The 20-49 age group’s hospitalization rate is also at an all-time high in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

During the final school board meeting before the start of classes, Harris on Monday walked members through the latest figures on COVID-19.

Harris said COVID-19 infections in the previous six weeks have climbed because of the Delta variant. She said the variant replicates more efficiently in hosts, produces higher viral loads and spreads more easily as a result.

Harris said locally kids have not been hospitalized due to COVID-19, but she pointed to cases in Louisiana where children are being admitted to intensive care units and placed on ventilators after being infected and cases in Raleigh where children are taken to the emergency rooms or admitted due to infection. Harris said she does not want to see kids here in intensive care because of the variant. She also noted children are less likely to spread the disease.

Harris pointed to several measures to prevent the spread of the disease, notably vaccination and hand washing, but members of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education have explicitly voted to not require proof of vaccination and examined practices to make sure they comply with the spirit of that vote.

As of Monday, before the start of school, 11 RSS staff were COVID-19 positive and 20 were in quarantine.

Harris said about 94% of cases are in unvaccinated people and people who have been vaccinated are generally not becoming seriously ill or dying. Harris said reinfection rates for unvaccinated people are double that of the vaccinated population. 

Harris said about 42% of the total population in Rowan County has been fully vaccinated and about 54% of the eligible population (12 years and older) has been fully vaccinated.

Board member Dean Hunter asked if one student wearing a mask provides protection against another not wearing a mask. Harris compared prevention to filling the holes in Swiss cheese, and adding additional layers helps reduce the risk of transmission.

Hunter asked if vaccines do work and are widely available “aren’t we to the point to where you have the freedom to choose to do it if you want to?”

Harris said the goal is herd immunity and acknowledged part of the process is giving up a bit of individual decision making to benefit the whole of society. She said everyone wants the pandemic to end. She pointed to other cases in recent history, including polio, where vaccines have almost eradicated the disease. 

Harris said decreasing the risk of healthy people will also decrease the risk for people who are more vulnerable to the disease.

“It’s going to help my grandmother who has a weakened immune system. It’s going to help those others in our society who do not have as much of an opportunity, I think, for the health that maybe I have because I’m making these different choices,” Harris said.

Hunter said Harris was “toeing the company line.” 

Harris said the school board has a difficult decision making process trying to keep people in school and keep them safe, and the best thing she can do is bring them information from trusted sources.

In other news from Monday’s meeting:

• The board reviewed the proposed capital outlay budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The $3.5 million budget allocates the vast majority of its funds to facility improvements. When asked about why some schools receive significantly more funding than others in the budget, Chief Operations Officer Anthony Vann said allocations vary year to year depending on the needs at each school.

This year is unique because items normally included in the budget, including windows and HVAC improvements, can be paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funding. Vann said the district is creating a document outlining relief funding expenditures, noting some schools will receive more funding as a result.

• The board approved applying for a second school number for Summit Virtual Academy. Chief of Schools Kelly Withers said the second number would allow the district to separate the elementary and middle grades at the virtual school, which would allow for additional staff such as a principal for each school. The second number will also allow RSS to tailor programs to each set of grade levels. The current enrollment for the academy is 571 elementary students and 239 middle school students.

• The board approved extending a contract with the Charlotte custodial services company Jani-King to provide additional cleaning services at schools for the entire school year. The monthly rate charged by the company is the same as last year, and is being funded through federal relief money. The total in the contract is “not to exceed” $495,000.