COVID-19 has undoubtedly influenced our everyday life and the world as we know it. In March, many were sure that this pandemic would be short-lived. Unfortunately, it's almost Thanksgiving, and COVID-19 is still front and center in all our lives.
Like many facets of our life, the virus has impacted each of us in some way. We’ve watched as the virus has impacted our families and our loved ones. We’ve experienced economic distress, emotional stress, illness, and even death.
We have reinvented educational delivery models for school, something that does not happen quickly, and is not easy to do. While we have many success stories, teaching in this new environment has brought new challenges. Our staff has risen to the occasion in many situations; however, we understand that “one size does not fit all.” The majority of our students truly need face-to-face instruction. Learning from a remote location simply isn’t optimal for many children who need the structure and routine of a regular classroom. We are social creatures by nature, and the social interaction amongst peers, staff, and the social environment itself all impact learning. Schools across the country continue to struggle to find the right mix for students and staff in 2020.
In October 2020, we were one of the first school systems in the state to return to face-to-face learning full-time for K-5. We are currently offering K-5 five days per week for approximately 82% of our students. The rest have chosen to remain virtual. The data shows only three percent of our faculty and staff have had COVID-19, and less than one percent of our students have contracted COVID-19 since our return to school in August. The student-to-staff infections to date have remained at zero with only one case of staff-to-staff transfer.
Our data also shows that spread is low within schools that are open across the United States. In fact, the percentage of COVID-19 spread across Iredell County has remained higher than the percentage of spread in our schools. We have been told by an immunologist that, “In regard to COVID-19 spread, we believe that school is the safest place to be in the community.”
We do commend our staff for their bravery and professionalism during this uncertain time. While we have some employees who are considered high-risk for contracting COVID-19, we’ve done our best to accommodate those individuals the best we are able. Some of our teachers who are at-risk have been able to instruct students in a completely virtual setting. It’s taken lots of planning and logistics, but our staff has stepped up to the plate, and they are doing a commendable job.
There is some confusion amongst staff and our parents when there is a confirmed case. The Health Information Privacy Act (HIPAA) not only limits the information we get, it also limits the information we are able to share. If an individual tests positive, the health department is notified by the doctor’s office or testing agency. Typically, the health department then contacts the person who tested positive and gets a list of close contacts. However, COVID-19 has such an overwhelming impact on the health department, that the I-SS and the Iredell County Health Department have established a systematic process where they work together with school nurses and administration to inform close contacts of a possible COVID-19 exposure.
By working together, both agencies are able to more quickly inform individuals of possible exposure. In determining whether a person is deemed a close contact, he/she must have been within six feet for 15 minutes or more of a person who has tested positive for COVID. If someone is deemed a close contact, he/she must quarantine for 10 days, even if he/she has no symptoms and tests negative for COVID-19. As a result, it is imperative in our schools for both our students and staff to maintain six feet of social distancing in order to avoid quarantine.
While positive COVID cases remain low across the district, the number of students and staff that have had to quarantine as a result of “close contact” can greatly inhibit our ability to keep our schools open. Iredell-Statesville Schools is currently partnering with the ABC Science Collaborative. The collaborative pairs school districts with scientists and physicians and informs schools of current trends and data.
The partnership has been very informative for the I-SS. We have learned numerous ways to combat spread and maintain a safe bus and school environment. While we have learned that spread of COVID through the touching of surfaces is rare, this has not lessened our custodial crews from constant cleaning. When we have a positive case in a school building, we bring in a team to electrostatically treat the school or area.
This week we will roll out our “COVID Pledge” to our employees across our school district. The pledge includes continued training with staff to improve our understanding of the spread of COVID, and hopefully lessen the number quarantined due to close contact.
The key to our success involves three things: six feet of distance, mask wearing, and frequent handwashing. The data shows that these three things are the key to keeping our students and staff safe, and keeping our schools open. While no one practice will keep someone from getting COVID, a combination of social distancing, mask wearing and handwashing seem to be the secret recipe to limit the spread of the virus.
We are all navigating a new existence, and it simply will take all of us working together to keep our schools open. We are confident that our data will soon allow us to return to learning in our schools K-12.
Dr. Jeff James is the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools.
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