Update at 4:45 p.m.: In the time since Port City Daily first inquired about the Covid-19 outbreak at Coastal Christian, and after Port City Daily spoke to a public health official Monday, 30 additional cases among the school’s staff and students were confirmed by New Hanover County Public Health, according to a county spokesperson. Coastal Christian High’s cluster is now included in the state Department of Health and Human Services report, updated today at 4 p.m.
WILMINGTON — Coastal Christian High School has silently made the switch once again to remote learning after multiple students tested positive for Covid-19.
Port City Daily obtained emails that show the disclosure of seven positive cases within a two-day span. On Nov. 21, Brenda McCombie, a school administrator, sent an email to the community revealing two “additional” people had contracted Covid-19. Two days later, another email went out listing five more students tested positive.
A parent receiving messages from the school said additional positive cases have been communicated every day, excluding Thanksgiving, since parents were notified of a new case on Nov. 19.
While McCombie told Port City Daily that every positive Covid-19 case in the school has been disclosed to New Hanover County Public Health, the presence of clusters at Coastal Christian has not been officially confirmed by either public health or the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services defines a cluster as groups of five or more cases of Covid-19 that are linked by proximity and time. Coastal Christian was not listed on a Nov. 24 report from the DHHS which tracks ongoing clusters in school settings across the state.
In her messages, McCombie thanked the families who allowed the information to be shared. Coastal Christian parents typically agree to allow administrators to share the names of students who test positive with the wider school community.
“At his [sic] time I would ask that you speak with your child and ask if they had exposure to either student at a close proximity in class, at lunch, at an athletic practice, or any other time,” McCombie wrote in both emails. “If the answer is yes, you should have your child quarantine for 14 days from their exposure date.”
In an email to Port City Daily, McCombie said she decided to extend Thanksgiving break after she became aware of new Covid-19 cases within the school community. The decision was announced in a Facebook post on Nov. 20.
“To ensure that those who tested positive, along with those who needed to quarantine remained off campus, I made the decision at that time to extend our Thanksgiving break to include the Monday and Tuesday which fell prior to the already scheduled days off for the week,” she wrote in the email.
She added the administration thereafter decided to pivot to remote learning for the week following the Thanksgiving holiday.
“After some consideration, I made the decision to toggle to remote learning for the week of November 30 – December 4,” she wrote. “This would ensure that anyone who was not feeling well or who had been exposed to a COVID positive person would remain off campus for a full 14 days.”
Schools in North Carolina are required to report confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases to the local health department, per state statute. This mandate is applicable to “non-public schools” as well, as emphasized in guidance from DHHS released Nov. 30.
A DHHS spokesperson confirmed in an email that the department expects K-12 schools, private schools included, to report positive Covid-19 diagnoses to local health department authorities.
In some circumstances, multiple students becoming sick around the same time may not qualify as a cluster, such as when a school has a large population and the positive individuals were never in contact, according to Carla Turner, New Hanover County assistant health director. However, Coastal Christian has a student population of only a few hundred.
Clusters are identified when contact tracers notice similarities and patterns during case investigations, Turner said. In recent months, she said the public health office has been challenged by a tendency among some to withhold information when talking to contact tracers. She stressed that contact tracing is purely an information gathering process, and has no punitive consequences.
“We’re still running into people not wanting to give us any information or giving us very vague information,” Turner said. “And that makes it very difficult for us to do our jobs as we continue to work really hard every day to protect folks in New Hanover County.”
When Covid-19 cases are identified by laboratory tests, that information is entered into a state-level database, from which county health departments draw on to perform contact-tracing operations. “COVID-19 case and cluster investigations are conducted by local health departments,” according to the DHHS.
In early October, Coastal Christian similarly paused in-person instruction after disclosing its first group of positive cases within the school community. McCombie told parents in an email the early October cases appeared to be linked to a “group that was together Friday night for dinner, a Saturday volleyball group, and possibly an off-campus lunch that may be the sources of all but one of these cases.”
Coastal Christian was named in a previous DHHS report that tracked clusters in child care and school settings. Published Oct. 23, the report stated eight Covid-19 cases were involved in a cluster that was ongoing at Coastal Christian at that time.
Turner said when a positive case is identified, public health typically works alongside school principals to exchange information. “As of last Wednesday, we’ve not had a conversation with them,” she said Monday, Nov. 30, referring to Coastal Christian, but added that her office has heard information about additional cases within its student body.
“I have worked with the New Hanover County Health Department and the staff there to report the cases of students who were on campus with positive test results,” McCombie noted in a Dec. 1 email. “They have also traced any additional cases related to our students. The Health Department employees have been wonderful to work with. They are very thoughtful and working very hard to identify cases and support our community.”
McCombie told Port City Daily in the email that all Covid-19 cases at Coastal Christian have been reported to New Hanover County Public Health.
“When schools started going back, we have had contact with Coastal Chrisitan administration so those lines of communication are open and have been open,” said Kate Oelslager, communications and outreach coordinator for New Hanover County. “It’s not like we’re not working together.”
More than half of ongoing K-12 school clusters across the state are in private schools, according to the most recent DHHS cluster report from Nov. 24.
Private schools are encouraged, but not required, to follow the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which includes guidance on social distancing, screening and other preventive measures. However, nonpublic schools must comply with some requirements, such as reporting cases to the health department and cooperating with contact tracing. Only recently have people been required to wear face coverings in private schools. On Nov. 25, the governor’s mask mandate was expanded to include private institutions and homeschool settings.
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