Two days after the start of the traditional school year in Wake County, 140 coronavirus cases have been reported in the school district.
Now, Wake County Public School System is considering regular COVID-19 testing for all employees and student-athletes who have not provided proof of vaccination. The move is framed as a response to the report of more than 140 cases of COVID-19 in just the first two days of in-person classes.
The school system has prioritized in-person learning paired with COVID safety measures in the 2021-22 school year.
“This is happening because people infected with the Delta variant are more contagious than last year,” the school district wrote in an email update to families on Wednesday.
Many parents said they are looking to go back to virtual learning, but it’s not an option right now.
“They haven’t actually started … I couldn’t bring myself to get them out the door because I’ve just been a hot mess about it,” said parent Elizabeth Silas.
The plan for testing, which is not final, would allow student-athletes, teachers and staff who provide proof of vaccination to skip regular testing. The school board is expected to debate the idea at its next meeting on Sept. 7.
Effective immediately, system administrators are instructing schools to identify outdoor eating options for students. Because the coronavirus spreads through the air, being outdoors is believed to be safer, especially for people who have their masks off to eat or drink.
“If you lift the mask restriction when students gather … then the number of students that have to quarantine go up,” said Wake County Board of Education member Dr. Jim Martin.
Next week, schools that have an identified COVID-19 cluster will be required to monitor and report on how students, teachers and staff are complying with mask mandates.
“I think it needs to be a little bit tighter and to not wait until we have a cluster,” said Martin.
In addition to a regular testing program for the unvaccinated – which would include all elementary and many middle school students, since those under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine – the school board will consider a mask requirement to be enforced both indoors and outdoors on all school properties, including during recess and extracurricular activities.As of Wednesday, 25 North Carolina school systems, mostly in the far eastern and western parts of the state, had no mask mandate even indoors.
“According to current state health guidance, a student without a face covering is considered a close contact to an infected individual even if that exposure occurs outside,” the note to parents read. “Scheduled ‘mask breaks’ would be needed under this option.”
The message concluded, “We appreciate this is not the start to a new school year that many envisioned or anyone wanted. However, we are confident that full compliance and stricter measures will allow students to participate in the types of school activities that would otherwise be jeopardized by the Delta variant of COVID-19.”
Despite these new guidelines, some parents said they still wouldn’t feel comfortable with in-person learning.
“Younger children cannot get vaccinated. I just don’t think masks are enough to to protect them right now,” said parent Amy Kohn.
While parents said they want Wake’s Virtual Academy to be reopened, Martin said right now, it’s just now a viable option.
“Unless we can manufacture a much great teaching labor force and funding to support it, I don’t see that being possible,” he said.
Still, parents remained upset with the lack of options.
“I don’t know what the answer for that is,” said Kohn. “I just know there are a lot of parents that are really frustrated right now because we don’t feel safe sending our children back to school.”
The Wake County Board of Education will discuss the mask changes and regular testing during Sept. 7’s meeting.