How Town Creek Elementary became the largest Covid-19 cluster in NC

town creek elementary school
On a Friday morning, Town Creek Elementary’s parking lot is full of staff cars. While teachers are back in the building following a severe Covid-19 outbreak last month, students are at home learning virtually. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY – Town Creek Elementary has topped the statewide list of Covid-19 clusters in recent weeks with the largest number of positive cases in a school setting, including 16 infected staff members and 21 students.

Three teachers of the elementary school, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, expressed concerns about the management of the outbreak. They believe cases could have been prevented had the district closed the building earlier.

Related: Coastal Christian High silently closes building after second Covid-19 outbreak, cluster still unreported


Despite the first person testing positive as early as four days prior, the school system did not take action to close the entire school to students until late Tuesday, Dec. 15, when it realized there were too many teacher absences to remain open. By that point, the virus had already traveled throughout classrooms for days, infecting the third-grade team and others.

A school spokesperson explained the district would not close a school for one positive case. The Town Creek Elementary School closure highlights the difficulty organizations have faced throughout the pandemic, when all too often the virus has spread beyond control before the first case is positively identified.

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Three business days of viral spread

The elementary school had encountered “close calls” before with others becoming ill, according to one teacher who was bedridden with Covid-19 through the Christmas holiday following the outbreak. The educators spoke of the struggle it has been to enforce mask-wearing among young students and maintain social distancing in a building that was operating at near full capacity.

“We stopped saying, ‘If we get it,’” one teacher said. “We just said, ‘When we get it, we just hope we don’t die.’”

In September Gov. Roy Cooper issued a surprise announcement that local districts could choose Plan A for K-5 schools, which allows schools to reopen at full capacity.

Just days after, the Brunswick County Board of Education approved bringing elementary students back on a full-time basis starting Oct. 5. The schools had previously been operating under Plan B, which allowed for children to learn in person twice a week and at home three days a week.

It went smoothly for the first several months. There were a few cases identified, but no evidence of any super-spreading events.

Then, on Friday, Dec. 11, Brunswick County Health Services received the first reported case of a soon-to-be cluster at Town Creek Elementary. Health Services Director Cris Harrelson wrote in a Jan. 5 email to Port City Daily that the department immediately conducted tracing and directed all close contacts within the school to quarantine.

The teacher said she noticed children “sequestered” in different parts of the front office that day. She asked an administrator if she should expect a phone call soon and was told no.

By Saturday, Dec. 12, the teacher was coughing and feeling achy. By Sunday, she was worse. On Wednesday she was confirmed positive for Covid-19.

School resumed on Monday and Tuesday as normal.

“A school would not close if there was a single positive case,” Daniel Seamans, Brunswick County Schools (BCS) chief communications officer, wrote in an email. “A school would close if there were significant cases that resulted in the inability to have a safe learning environment.”

Additional cases were confirmed early into the week, causing the health department to continue contact investigation. Health officials determined Tuesday the school had a cluster, defined as a group of five cases linked by time or proximity within a 14-day period.

“It became evident that the cases were not isolated instances but were linked to each other,” Harrelson said.

The cluster was reported to BCS and to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Through continued case investigations, 135 people were ultimately assigned to quarantine.

Making the call

Mid-Tuesday, after BCS received confirmation of a cluster from the health department, the district announced Town Creek Elementary third graders would learn from home the rest of the week – Wednesday and Thursday – due to increased Covid-19 activity. Friday was the start of holiday break.

District administrators had made the decision based on discussions with Town Creek Elementary admin, Seamans said, though Superintendent Dr. Jerry Oates made the final call.

When the closure was announced for only one grade, parents and teachers questioned why the school system was not considering the potential for spread on the buses or by siblings of third graders in other classes.

Teachers were also concerned about going to work in person, but the school district is facing a substitute shortage due to the pandemic. They knew there’d be no coverage of their classes if they didn’t show. At points during the week of the outbreak, custodians were supervising classrooms, while educators were out quarantining or working from home.

In a board of education meeting held Wednesday, Dec. 15 of that week, board members aired concerns about the stopgap arrangement with custodial staff. 

A second teacher said the shrinking pool of available substitute teachers meant staff felt pressured by administrators to continue working in person.

“Subs are a thing of the past,” the second teacher said. “It felt like they were like, ‘Well if you all put in for subs, we’re just going to close the school.’ It almost felt like they were forcing us to close school, so they could blame us for the school being shut down.”

After the midday Tuesday announcement about closing the third grade, the school disclosed that night no student in any grade would have class the next day. Seamans told Port City Daily this was due to a “staffing issue.” Thursday, Dec. 17, became an all-remote learning day for students in every grade.

‘A need-to-know basis’

Health services notifies people it determines are “directly impacted” by a positive Covid-19 case. Seamans said seating charts and interviews are used during this process. If someone is not deemed a close contact — defined in the school system as being closer than 6 feet in distance for 15 noncumulative minutes in a day — they are not notified.

According to the second teacher from Town Creek, another teacher had a student test positive in their room and was told only parents of children sitting near the positive student would be made aware. Eventually when a second student tested positive, a notification went out to all parents in the class.

“So they weren’t going to tell parents there was a case in that class,” the teacher said. “It was just absurd.”

Though the teacher had cases in her room, she never contracted Covid-19. When she gave notification of the cases in her class through ClassDojo, an app the school uses to communicate with families, she said she assigned students independent work on their Chromebooks so she could field questions from the parents for 45 minutes.

She said parents asked questions she couldn’t answer: “Does this kid sit near my kid? Is my kid friends with this kid? Who is it?”

“Well, I can’t tell you that,” the teacher said. “I couldn’t even say, ‘Hey, this kid is best friends with your kid. They play together every day.’ I wasn’t allowed to say that.”

The first teacher said she believes she was exposed while she was in the classroom of another teacher, who was absent and rumored to have Covid-19.

“It was like a need-to-know basis,” the first teacher said. “Anything we heard was just through rumor.”

Revert

On Tuesday, Dec. 15, Brunswick County health director David Stanley addressed the board of education about transmissions within the schools — an identification it had not yet made until the last week or two.

“We are seeing some transmissions that are occurring inside the schools where you’ve got a real tight setting — where they can’t social distance,” Stanley told the board.

Related: As transmission reaches schools, Brunswick reverts to remote-only after winter break

In interviews, the teachers described the staff and themselves as “very pro mask” and “religious about the masks,” but explained how students aren’t as disciplined about the practice. Social distancing is a challenge, too.

A third teacher said maintaining physical distancing in a classroom full of young students is nearly impossible.

“I just don’t think people realize how hard it is to keep 20 6-year-olds away from each other every single second of the day,” the teacher said.

Teachers place tape around their rooms to mark distances but younger children still struggle to comply.

“The rule that is the stickler is the one that’s 6 feet apart,” the first teacher said. “There’s just no way, at a school of our number and the class sizes filled to capacity, that you’re going to get 6 feet apart. You’re not going to get 3 feet apart.”

This past semester, under Plan A, 550 students were coming into the Town Creek Elementary five days a week. The school’s capacity allows for 673 students.

Around 80 to 85 employees work in the school as well, though not all are on campus at the same time.

Completed in 2009, Town Creek is still the newest elementary school in the district despite Brunswick County experiencing the highest growth rate in North Carolina, especially in the northern Leland area, which serves as a feeder market for Wilmington.

An addition onto Town Creek Elementary with six new classrooms opened in fall 2019 to make room for the increasing population.

That Tuesday, the board of education unanimously voted to revert to Plan C, fully remote learning only, following the holiday break. Starting this week through Jan. 19, BCS students are attending classes virtually.

As that date approaches, the first teacher said she is concerned about going back.

“How do we stop this from happening again? What are we changing?” she asked. “I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think they’re changing anything.”

In emails, Seamans and Harrelson noted the district would move forward by continuing to focus on the three Ws: Wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart and wash your hands, frequently.

Superintendent Oates said largely the same at the most recent board meeting, on Jan. 5: “One of the things that we just have to do is follow the precautions and protocols we have in place. I will be the first to say that schools are probably the safest and cleanest they’ve ever been. So with that we as the leaders and the adults in the room, in the building, we have to adhere to those guidelines as stringently as we can and model those things for our students.”

With classes back in session – online-only – cases are down within the system. There are 10 people who currently have the virus and 37 people in quarantine, according to the most recent update on the district’s Covid-19 dashboard.


Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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