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New NC advice seeks to keep more virus-exposed kids in class

Fifth grader Christopher Morales Perez greets his teacher Leah Erlbaum at Lakewood Elementary as the virtual students reunite at school to take their end-of-grade exams.
Liz Schlemmer
In this May 2021 file photo, fifth-grader Christopher Morales Perez greets his teacher Leah Erlbaum at Lakewood Elementary as the virtual students reunite at school to take their end-of-grade exams.

North Carolina health officials on Thursday eased guidance for K-12 schools that had directed students and staff to often stay home for five days if they were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

The updated recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services, which take effect Feb. 21, state that children and school workers shouldn't be required to stay home following a virus exposure unless they have coronavirus symptoms or test positive.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which also recommends against individual contract tracing in the schools, reflects changing trends in the pandemic and DHHS efforts to keep children in classrooms, health Secretary Kody Kinsley said.

“This is the right approach for this point in the pandemic and includes flexibility for local schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions,” Kinsley said in a news release.

The new guidance comes as the number of daily COVID-19 cases in in the state has fallen in recent weeks, as the omicron variant wave has waned. The number of people with COVID-19 in the hospital also has dropped from a pandemic-high of over 5,200 two weeks ago to below 3,700 as of Wednesday, according to DHHS data.

Under the outgoing guidance, children and teachers in close contact with a virus-positive person and who aren’t up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines should quarantine for at least five days after exposure. But it wasn’t required if a person had tested positive in the past 90 days, or if both individuals were wearing masks. Both the outgoing and updated guidance state that people who tested positive generally can return to school within five days, then need to wear masks for another five days.

The new guidance keeps the recommendation that schools require staff and students to wear masks indoors. While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and health officials have strongly urged school districts to follow the mask guidance, he’s left it up to school boards to decide whether to approve such a mandate.

Nearly all 115 school boards agreed to mask mandates to start the current school year, but boards that have approved mask-optional policies had grown to nearly 30 by late last week, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association. Johnston and Cumberland school boards agreed this week to similar policies that take effect later this month.

A few hours before the new guidance was released, House Speaker Tim Moore wrote Cooper urging him and Kinsley to repeal “guidelines that force healthy kids to stay home and effectively mandate masks in schools.”

Other states already have ended their mask mandates, Moore added, and other current policies in schools “are as onerous as they are ineffective and unnecessary.”

Speaking at a Goldsboro child care center in between the release of the letter and the guidance, Cooper signaled the updated DHHS recommendations were coming, WRAL-TV reported.

“I'm pleased and hopeful that we can get back to normal lives with the understanding that we’re all going to need to do things to make sure that we protect ourselves, dependent upon the risk,” the governor said. Cooper's office also confirmed the governor's comment that health officials also are reviewing mask guidance in light of falling transmission rates.

The new guidance discourages individual contract tracing because its overall effectiveness in schools has declined, the DHHS release said.

The agency cited in part the larger number of asymptomatic and less severe cases, the emergence of variants and the fact that people with infections are most conatgious before symptoms surface and during the first few days of illness.

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