UPDATE: Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said Friday morning that the decision to close Mulberry Elementary that day “was in relation to a positive test for COVID-19. No other Wilkes County schools have had to close up to this point." He added, “While every single case will not require us to close an entire school, circumstances in this situation led us to believe that this was best in this instance.”

Byrd also said Wilkes school officials were surprised and excited by the governor announcing that elementary schools can start full-time in-person learning Oct. 5 because they were under the impression this wouldn't be an option until later in the semester. “We started planning yesterday (Thursday) to determine when and how to best transition our K-5 students back to school and determining logistics that will need to be addressed to get them back to school. We hope to share information shortly on what this will look like in Wilkes County Schools," he said.

Mulberry Elementary School will be closed Friday as a “precaution… for additional deep cleaning of the building,” according to a statement posted on the school’s Facebook page Thursday afternoon.

“Parents of students who are directly impacted by this situation have already been contacted…. Thank you for your understanding as we try to ensure the safety of students and staff,” it stated.

The announcement didn’t explain the nature of the “situation,” including if it involved someone testing positive for COVID-19. It was addressed to “Mulberry families.”

Also Thursday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina’s public school districts have the option of implementing fulltime in-person learning (Plan A) in elementary schools starting Oct. 5. “We are able to open this option because most North Carolinians have doubled down on our safety and prevention measures and stabilized our numbers,” he said.

Cooper said elementary schools switching to Plan A must continue adherence to safety measures such as social distancing and temperature checks, plus all students, teachers and staff still wear masks.

Some written comments on Mulberry’s Facebook page in response to Friday’s closure of the school asked if it had at least one COVID-19 case. One who commented was the parent of a Mulberry student who said she must know because she is a nurse and may need to self-quarantine.

The announcement said Friday would be a remote learning day for all Mulberry students. It noted that Monday, Sept. 21, already was scheduled as a remote learning day and would remain so. Monday is a remote learning and required teacher work day for all Wilkes schools.

The Wilkes schools started the year Aug. 17 with all students learning remotely (Plan C). Each school’s student body split into two groups starting Sept. 8. Both alternate between remote learning and in-person learning each day but never the same on the same day (Plan B). About 25% of students are using Plan C the entire first nine weeks.

Plan B limits schools to 50% of student capacity; Plan A has no limit.

Balancing privacy, transparency

In a Sept. 1 statement addressed to “Wilkes County Schools Family Member,” Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said the Wilkes school system will “attempt to achieve a balance of transparency with that of sharing permissible information” if COVID-19 is confirmed in a school.

Byrd continued, “We are legally required to follow privacy requirements outlined in state statute. Thus, we cannot divulge personally identifiable health information, or information that can inadvertently lead to identification.”

He said announcing that a school has a COVID-19 case could inadvertently identify someone who tested positive since the person would have to be absent from school while under quarantine.

Byrd continued, “For this reason, our current plan is to not share information each time there is an individual case in a school. Teachers will be informed that a student will be absent from their class, but we will not share with the entire faculty information about cases inside the building….

“I assure you that our system will never try to keep information from you, as we have absolutely nothing to gain from doing so. I encourage people to think of how they would feel if their child or family member tested positive, and that information was shared with others.

“Should any student or employee be directly exposed to an individual who has tested positive, procedures are clearly in place for that person or persons to be contacted by health department officials. Rest assured, if there is a need for you to be aware of a positive case, you will be contacted as soon as possible. Our school system will never hesitate to share pertinent information with you when it concerns your personal safety, or that of those around you.”

Byrd said that if a school has a “cluster” of COVID-19 cases, defined as five in the same school within 14 days, all students, teachers and staff will be told and the school will have to close short-term and operate under Plan C for a period after reopening.

Byrd concluded by saying he hoped he had demonstrated during the last 4 ½ years as superintendent that student safety is his top priority “and the importance of this will be even more significant as we face this pandemic.”

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