The Wilkes County Schools have had 442 confirmed COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, when all Wilkes elementary, middle and high schools transitioned from full-time remote learning to optional half-time remote and half-time in-person learning (A/B plan).

This information was part of an update from the Wilkes Health Department on COVID-19 in the local public schools during a Wilkes Board of Education meeting Monday night.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said she believes the Wilkes school system is doing everything it can to keep students and staff safe.

Willard cited a COVID-19 cluster at North Wilkes High School in late September as an example. She said that through diligent screening and additional cleaning at North Wilkes High, the cluster was contained to a single class. The school also returned to full-time remote learning for over a week.

She said the close relationship between the health department and the Wilkes school system, including on the local COVID response team, is a blessing.

“School involvement” was identified in 41% of the 442 cases, said Lindsey Roberts, community health services director for the health department. This refers to a person being at school or in a school function within two days of the onset of COVID-19 symptoms or within two days prior to testing positive if asymptomatic.

“I think that shows a great deal of work to make sure the kids who need to be excluded (due to COVID-19) are excluded” from contact with other students, said Roberts.

Roberts also said that among the 442 cases:

• 31% were elementary students, 21% were middle school students and 45% were high school students;

• 10% were students engaged in remote-only learning;

• 5% involved school athletics;

Roberts said 38 of the 442 are students or staff currently in self-isolation due to having COVID-19.

Among the four school districts in Wilkes, the Central District has had 146 cases; North District, 100; West District, 94; and East District, 71.

Wilkes Early College High School has had 12 confirmed cases. Nineteen were employees who work in different areas of the Wilkes County Schools.

Also since Sept. 8, said Roberts, 1,812 students or teachers have been in isolation due to COVID-19. She said this includes people exposed to someone with COVID-19 outside a school setting. “I would say way less than half of those are school contacts.”

Over 3,600 students in Wilkes middle and high schools are now using the A/B plan. On Oct. 20, all elementary schools went to full-time in-person learning. Total enrollment in the Wilkes schools is now nearly 8,500.

Willard said now was a good time to give the school board an update since vaccinations have started. Willard noted that after she and Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd talk each week, he passes on COVID-19 metrics she provides to school board members.

School board member Hardin Kennedy said he thinks the Wilkes school system has one of the better plans in the state for addressing COVID-19.

School board member Joan Caudill asked Willard if she foresees mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations being required for children anytime in the near future. Willard said that instead of becoming mandatory, COVID-19 vaccinations will likely have the same status as flu vaccinations.

One important factor is how long current COVID-19 vaccines are effective, which isn’t known yet, she added.

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