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North Wilkes High School has seven confirmed COVID-19 cases, enough to be considered a cluster, announced the Wilkes County Health Department at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

All North Wilkes High students will use remote learning Thursday and Friday instead of some of them being at the school and in classrooms with teachers, according to a statement posted Wednesday on the Wilkes County Schools website.

Meanwhile, Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said Thursday that nine of the 22 Wilkes schools have had people test positive for COVID-19 since students returned to schools for in-person learning on Sept. 8. In addition to Mulberry Elementary (already announced) and North Wilkes High, they are Wilkes Central and Wilkes Early College high schools, Central Wilkes Middle School and Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro, Millers Creek and Boomer-Ferguson elementary schools.

Byrd said some of these cases were students engaged in remote learning and not coming on a school campus, while others didn’t involve close contacts or may have been out of school for days prior to their positive tests. All individuals directly impacted by these confirmed cases have been contacted, he said.

Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard said North Wilkes High is the only Wilkes school with a COVID-19 cluster, which means at least five apparently related cases with illness onsets or initial positive test results within the same 14-day period.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services listed COVID-19 clusters at nine other schools in North Carolina. North Wilkes High School wasn’t listed.

Willard said six students and one teacher, all in the same North Wilkes High classroom, tested positive for the virus. She said lab test results of nasal swab samples confirming COVID-19 were received for most of the seven Wednesday.

“These individuals have since been placed on self-quarantine. In addition to North Wilkes High students and staff, Wilkes Health is working to identify any additional close contacts of these individuals,” stated a health department press release. Health department and Wilkes school officials identified and contacted all staff and students potentially exposed to confirmed cases at North Wilkes, the release said.

Willard said health department and school officials based the decision to switch to Plan C (everyone in remote learning) at North Wilkes on information provided by people at the school with COVID-19. “This allows for the school building to be thoroughly cleaned, while reducing the risk of exposure to other students or staff,” she said, adding that the school will resume in-person learning Monday.

Byrd said Wilkes school officials are working closely with the health department and providing additional cleaning, along with other precautions, to prevent further spread. "As always, the health and safety of our students, staff and community are our number one priority," he said.

Willard said that because of the setting of clusters when they occur, it’s difficult to accurately determine how the virus was transmitted and whether this occurred within the setting (school) or beyond that within the broader community.

She said local officials expected and have been preparing for a COVID-19 cluster in the Wilkes schools. She said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends switching a school or a class to remote learning when a cluster occurs, but the number of days they remain in remote learning depends on the situation.

Willard said that especially with high school students, learning in-person in classrooms poses no greater risk because of the amount of time students spend with other students while away from their schools.

As of Thursday, 1,192 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Wilkes since the pandemic began. That's up from 1,175 on Wednesday.

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