N.C. COVID guidelines: Students, staff exposed to COVID-19 can return to classroom immediately if vaccinated

Masks and vaccinations strongly encouraged, according to N.C. health school guidance
New COVID-19 quarantine guidelines for schools
Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 2:57 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - With students returning to the classroom and the omicron variant of COVID-19 surging at record numbers against North Carolina, state leaders updated its safety guidelines.

N.C. health leaders urge students and staff at K-12 schools to promote vaccination and boosters for students and staff and require students and staff wear masks indoors to keep students in the classroom and limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“Research and lived experience in this pandemic have shown it is essential we do everything we can to safely keep our students in the classroom,” said NCDHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry. “In-person learning is more than academics, it’s also children interacting with their peers, getting healthy meals and accessing critical support services.”

State officials are adamant that requiring masks in schools reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published an updated review of scientific data that continues to show the benefits of mask-wearing in reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The updated review included a study of the effectiveness of masking in 70 K-12 schools during the 2020-21 school year, which showed secondary transmission rates were significantly lower for interactions between individuals wearing masks.

Excluding a student or staff member from school following a COVID-19 exposure should be a last resort, according to state health officials.

A K-12 student or staff member who has been in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19 — and has not themselves developed symptoms or tested positive — can still attend school if:

  • The person exposed has had their COVID-19 vaccinations. For adults, this includes boosters.
  • The person exposed has had a confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 90 days.
  • The person exposed and the person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 were both properly wearing masks when the exposure occurred.

With the addition of a Test-to-Stay option, the list of scenarios for remaining in the classroom is expanded to include to unmasked exposures (e.g., when students are eating lunch). This Test-to-Stay option only applies to K-12 school settings that require masks, which data has shown limits the risk of transmission.

As part of Test-to-Stay, the person who was exposed to COVID-19 should:

  • Get tested the day they are notified of an exposure.
  • Get tested again five days after the exposure (or as close to five days as possible).
  • Wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.
  • Except for attending school, stay home and avoid others.

“Protecting our students and staff requires layers of protection to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said State Health Director and NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D. “In addition to vaccines and masks, Test-to-Stay is another proven tool that can help minimize the spread of COVID-19 while also maximizing time in the classroom.” School districts, charter schools and private schools can request testing kits and other testing support from NCDHHS as part of the StrongSchoolsNC K-12 COVID-19 Testing Program. Additionally, public schools can request funding to hire additional school nursing support staff for school testing and other school-based health services. N.C. health officials say students, staff and families are reminded to take precautions to protect themselves and their communities by getting vaccinated (and boosted as soon as eligible), wearing a well-fitting mask and getting tested for COVID-19 if they believe they may have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms.

Stephanie Groot’s daughter is a sophomore in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and is fully vaccinated.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has required masks in the district since school started in August. All staff, students, and visitors must wear masks inside CMS facilities.

Groot says the updated guidance is relieving considering her daughter can stay in school so long as she doesn’t test positive.

“I think that it gives us a little peace of mind that her in-person learning can continue,” Groot said. “Obviously if we felt she was a risk we would keep her at home and we hope the school would work with us on that, but given that she wasn’t showing symptoms and tested negative in this scenario, I think it’s great that we wouldn’t have to interrupt her in-person learning.”

Groot is in the process of scheduling her daughter’s COVID-19 booster shot.

Erin Washburn has three kids in CMS, one middle schooler and two high schoolers. All three of her children are fully vaccinated. She believes in-person learning is the best option for her students’ mental, emotional, and academic needs, which is why she’s grateful for the updated guidance on quarantine exemptions.

“I feel like we have stunted the growth of our children by keeping them out of school for so long, so by changing the rules of quarantine in an effort to keep them in the classroom, I think will only improve everything for our children,” Washburn said.

Her students are also eligible to get their Pfizer booster shot and will do so in the future. She says having masks requirements and vaccinations make her feel more comfortable with her children being in the classroom and having a lower risk of hospitalization with their vaccines.

“My children are healthy without any underlying medical conditions so their risk is low anyway, but I feel much more comfortable with them getting a booster and being around children in the classroom on a regular basis,” Washburn said.

In mid-December, Iredell-Statesville Schools voted to require masks in the district starting January 5. This comes after the district was previously mask-optional.

Masks are required for everyone unless they have a medical waiver filed with their school.

Stephanie Kendricks has five children in the ISS system. All of them are fully vaccinated and one just recently got their booster shot; the other four are not eligible yet.

Kendricks says even though ISS was mask-optional at one point, she has always required her children to wear masks.

“While I may be someone who requires my children to wear a mask to school whether the district says so or not, that’s not the case for everyone, and so you’ve got the exposure and not just from students but staff as well.”

Kendricks says the new guidance is encouraging but she fears quarantines and positive cases will spike if masks become optional again.

“I’m incredibly fearful that they’re going to lift the mask mandate and we’re going to go back to high cases and the kids being either back to virtual or continually quarantined,” Kendricks said.

Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education has a meeting next week to discuss the current mask requirement and if they will continue it.

The state guidance says if a person is exposed in a mask optional setting, they must quarantine for five days.

After that—they have to wear a mask for an additional five days if they don’t have symptoms.

Parents say as long as kids don’t have symptoms or test positive, they are comfortable with the updated guidance and quarantine exemptions.

“I feel pretty comfortable with it, obviously if someone feels at risk or has a different situation in their family they would need to make decisions accordingly,” Groot said.

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