Masks will be optional for students and staff in the Wilkes schools in the upcoming academic year as long as the county threshold of positive cases for students stays below recommended levels, announced Superintendent Mark Bryd in the school board meeting Monday night.

Byrd said that threshold will be determined in conversations with the Wilkes County Health Department. “We do not have a set number,” he added.

He said masks will be required on school buses. Visitors to Wilkes schools will not be required to wear masks.

Byrd said the plan for the 2021-22 school year is to “follow all mitigation strategies outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to the best of our ability, but make the wearing of masks or facial coverings optional for everyone in the school system as long as the county threshold of positive cases for school age students stay below recommended levels.”

He continued, “Should these levels be exceeded, upon advice from local health officials, this decision could have to be reevaluated. My hope is that everyone will take these other strategies very seriously in order to help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This decision could need to be reevaluated if data suggests, and could even vary at individual schools for a short amount of time due to a rise in cases.

“I think it is also important for parents to understand that we will have to require masks on buses due to federal mandates, but more importantly, to keep students safe due to minimal social distancing on buses.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and patience as we make difficult decisions while trying to ensure the safety of our students and staff. I also ask for this understanding in the event we have to make changes in our plans over the course of the school year.”

According to a written plan for 2021-22 provided by the school system, Byrd will maintain close communication with (Wilkes Health Dirctor) Rachel Willard to stay updated on this data. “Individual school data could lead to changes at a school for a period to slow the spread of the virus.”

The plan continued, “Wilkes County school administration will not tolerate bullying of those students or staff who make the personal choice to wear masks or not to wear masks. Such incidents will be treated as discipline infractions for students and personnel matters for employees.

The plan said changes for the 2021-22 school year will include the following unless adjustments are made due to local COVID metrics:

• nonessential visitors will be allowed in schools once more;

• field trips, assemblies and large group activities will be allowed;

• students will no longer be kept in small cohorts;

• Students will be allowed to dine in cafeterias with modifications and guidelines;

• daily symptom screening will be discontinued;

• social distancing on transportation will be maintained to the greatest extent possible;

• remote learning options will only apply due to positive cases or quarantines.

Wilkes County Schools will utilize layered prevention strategies outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. Examples include:

• encouraging all eligible students and staff to be vaccinated.

• masks will be required on buses for all persons to align with federal mandates and due to minimized social distancing. The Wilkes schools will also provide masks for those students on buses who forgot to bring them;

• ensure physical distancing to the greatest extent possible in all school settings. (three feet between students, 6 feet between teachers and students);

• monitor ventilation systems to ensure that they are providing the best air quality possible;

• continue to emphasize hand hygiene, both hand washing and use of hand sanitizer;

• continue to provide hand sanitizer at high traffic areas within schools;

• utilize testing through the Wilkes County Health Department MESH unit and consider statewide testing resources as needed;

• refer individuals who are symptomatic or have been a close contact to diagnostic testing;

• posting signage at entrances requesting those who are symptomatic with fever or cough not enter;

• encourage staff and students to sneeze into their elbows or to cover with a tissue;

• clean frequently touched surfaces on buses prior to morning and afternoon routes;

• provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors (hand sanitizers, soap, paper towels and tissues);

• teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds or the safe use of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol by children and staff;

• clean surfaces at least once per day prioritizing high-touch surfaces.

Wilkes County Schools will address possible or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the following manner:

Students and staff who have symptoms should stay home and contact their health care provider for information on testing and care.

Those who are symptomatic or diagnosed with COVID-19 must stay home until they meet the criteria for return to school.

Symptomatic individuals will be isolated and placed in a designated area within the school.

Symptomatic persons will be required to wear masks while waiting to leave the school.

School nurses or staff who provide direct care to symptomatic individuals will be required to wear appropriate PPE.

Symptomatic students will be supervised by a staff member who is at least 6 feet away and wears a mask or face covering.

Quarantine guidanceIsolation is required for all presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The local health department has the authority to isolate and quarantine, and Wilkes County Schools will cooperate with them fully to ensure that this is accurately done.

Quarantines are required for any individual who has been a close contact (within six feet for at least 15 minutes cumulatively over a 24-hour period) with three exceptions:

Individual who are fully vaccinated and do not have symptoms.

Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 3 months, recovered and are not symptomatic.

Those who are not fully vaccinated but were wearing a mask when the close contact occurred, as long as the symptomatic or confirmed individual was wearing a mask as well during this time. (Excludes teachers and athletic activities).

Wilkes County Schools acknowledges that wearing masks or face coverings and vaccinations prevent or shorten quarantine periods.

The Center for Disease Control recommends quarantine for 14 days after the last exposure. Periods of quarantine can be reduced in the following two scenarios:

• 10 days of quarantine have been completed and no symptoms are reported during the daily home monitoring;

• seven days of quarantine have been completed, no symptoms have been reported during this time, and the individual has received a negative antigen or PCR/molecular test taken no earlier than 5 days of quarantine.

COVID-19 testing

COVID-19 tests will currently be provided by the MESH Unit for all symptomatic students with parental permission.

Wilkes County Schools can arrange for rapid testing to be provided to any student who is interested through an outside provider at no cost to the family. This would require some additional planning and may not be available until September of 2021.

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