School system staff say drop in COVID cases is an ‘elephant on our chest’

Matthew Sasser | Daily newspaper

HAMLET — After a huge spike in COVID cases following the MLK vacation, schools in Richmond County are reporting a significant decrease in COVID district-wide.

On Jan. 18, there were 95 reported COVID-positive student cases in the school system, which rose to 116 two days later, said Dr. Wendy Jordan, director of student services.

Since January 25, when 50 new cases were reported, the numbers have steadily declined. On February 1, there were only 12 positive cases.

COVID-positive staff cases mirror the student trend. There were 21 cases reported on January 18 and 20, but only six on January 31.

Daily exclusions are students who have been in contact with someone who is COVID positive, who are symptomatic, or who have tested positive for COVID. The drop in the total number of cases coincided with a drop in exclusions.

On January 18, 918 students and 79 staff were unable to attend in-person learning. By January 31, those numbers had fallen to 285 and 23 respectively. As long as students wear a mask “consistently and appropriately,” quarantine is not necessary for students in a class where a classmate has tested positive.

Jordan said a school nurse told her the drop in COVID cases made it look like “an elephant was out of her chest.” The number of students and staff reflects the countywide trend of declining cases, Jordan said.

Last week, the school system began using MAKO medical labs to screen students as a preventative measure to catch COVID cases early. Families must choose to participate in this program.

So far, only four schools (Richmond Senior High School, Hamlet Middle School, West Rockingham and Mineral Springs Elementary School) have enough students who have chosen to start testing. A minimum of five students is required to begin the preventive test.

Only 30 students and staff opted in for the tests at these four schools. All RCS students are eligible to enroll and people are onboarded daily.

“Registration is fluid and the number of people tested will fluctuate each week based on new registrations,” Jordan explained in an email.

There is no cost for school-based testing offered by MAKO. Jordan shared that a representative from the testing company shared that initial signup may be low, but will increase over time as more people find out about the opportunity.

RCS has also hired two Unlicensed Assistants (UAPs) and is in the process of hiring two more UAPs, to assist with daily contact tracing.

The good news about the spread of the virus has board member Jerry Etheridge wondering if an end to the universal masking policy is on the horizon.

“Given the trend is down, when will we get to the point where we do optional masking?” asked Etheridge.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff Maples responded that the positivity rate is still extremely high for both Richmond County and North Carolina. Richmond County has a 26% positivity rate as of Feb. 2, though that’s down from the 50% positivity rate FirstHealth reported in mid-January.

Jordan shared that a representative from the state Department of Health and Human Services said this percentage would ideally be around 5% before the universal masking policy could be addressed.

“I would like to recommend that schools in Richmond County continue to enforce universal masking for all students, staff and visitors in schools, educational facilities and on bus transportation,” Maples said. “If we continue to see this downtrend and an ongoing trend, that would be very informative for us. Let’s not let our guard down right now.

Council member Ronald Tillman expressed his approval along with Maples’ comments.

The motion to maintain universal masking was unanimously approved.

RCC shares similar information

RCC President Dr. Dale McInnis also reported a spike in positive COVID cases for RCC students and staff in the two weeks following the MLK vacation, followed by a brief plateau. According to data updated last Friday, McInnis said they were seeing a “nose dive” in COVID cases.

Last week, there were about 70 students absent due to COVID, including those who tested positive and those in quarantine.

On Friday, there were only 30 students absent due to COVID.

“We are not seeing any disruptions or outbreaks on campus that we can identify,” McInnis reported.

He added that there were around 15 employees absent due to COVID during the peak, but currently there are only three employees absent.

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Contact Matthew Sasser at 910-817-2671 or [email protected]

Jeremy S. McLain