Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Deputies served Brunswick charter schools to force quarantine compliance after 75 cases

Students are returning to the classroom with masks on in many districts that have implemented mandatory mask procedures. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NHCS)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– Deputies with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office served school administrators at both the Leland and Southport campuses of Roger Bacon Academy with a pair of “control measure orders” on Aug. 6. The orders compelled the charter schools to comply with Covid-19 health protocols. 

Failure to comply could amount to a misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. Upon being served, the schools’ founder informed the health department he intended to comply with the order. 

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The orders mandated the schools immediately adhere with a host of decrees: post wear, wait, wash signage throughout the schools; immediately isolate sick students and staff; provide the health department with close contact exposure information; implement quarantine procedures in line with state guidance; correct improper guidance shared with parents; clean and disinfect surfaces daily.

Last week’s orders are the first such sanctions issued to a school in the tri-county region. Both Pender and New Hanover county health departments have not served control measure orders for Covid-19 compliance to any entities, the county’s spokespeople confirmed. Brunswick County’s health department has issued control measure orders and similar mandates to other parties during the pandemic but has never before cited a school, according to the county’s spokesperson. 

Leland’s Roger Bacon campus had 70 positive cases arising from several active clusters as of Wednesday. The Southport campus had five as of Friday.

Two weeks ago, the Leland campus came up with its own workaround to state quarantine rules to keep exposed students in the classroom without skipping a beat, so long as they wore a mask. 

Administrators of the year-round charter schools had to respond in real-time to changing mask and quarantine directives, whereas traditional calendar schools have had some time to prepare for new protocols. Students were attending the schools mask-free in late July.

Quarantine protocols

On July 21, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would let a mandatory mask executive order that applied to schools expire, leaving the option to mandate masks up to local school districts (the charter schools fell under the governor’s order but do not have to comply with Brunswick County Schools’ recent K-12 mask mandate for the upcoming academic year). With the announcement came an updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, crafted by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, containing both recommendations and requirements. 

Requirements for quarantines were slightly loosened, creating three new exemptions to staying out of school after close contact (quarantine isn’t necessary if all parties were wearing masks and if the exposed person is vaccinated or was Covid-positive and asymptomatic within three months). 

Quarantine is still required for close-contact exposures, occurring when someone is within 6 feet of a Covid-positive person for 15 cumulative minutes a day. In December 2020, the CDC relaxed its quarantine guidance and allowed the previous 14-day timeline to shorten to one week if the exposed individual was asymptomatic and obtained a negative test result.

After the updated guidance and rules came out, the school came up with its own quarantine procedure: Exposed students could return to school if they showed no symptoms and wore masks. This policy meant exposed students returned to school masked while those unexposed remained mask-free. 

On July 29, Charter Day School in Leland stopped providing requested close contact information to the health department so health officials could conduct contact tracing –– which presented a “grave concern,” the order states.  

The following day Charter Day School informed parents of its new quarantine strategy in a July 30 email. On Monday, Aug. 2, the county’s health director, Cris Harrelson, reminded school officials in writing of proper quarantine procedure and informed them of a state statute that empowers the local health director to enforce communicable disease-control measures adopted by the N.C. Commission for Public Health.

By Friday, the health department issued the orders for both schools, served by deputies at each location. The following Monday, Aug. 9, Charter Day School had still not provided all requested close-contact information to the health department. In an email sent Monday around noon, Harrelson informed the school administrator that continued noncompliance with the order “may result in legal action in the near future.” 

Harrelson also wrote to the Southport campus administrator Monday, stating instructions the school sent Sunday contradicted safety precautions laid out in the control measure order issued Friday. Southport administrators had also failed to provide requested close-contact information by mid-morning Monday, according to Harrelson’s email. 

The Sunday message to parents containing contradictory information was sent “in error,” the Southport administrator told the health director; a corrected email was later delivered to parents.

All requested information of the Leland campus had been shared by Monday afternoon, the Charter Day School administrator told Harrelson. Health department staff set meetings with each campus on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the orders.

Roger Bacon Academy oversees schools in Columbus, Brunswick, and New Hanover counties; students from neighboring counties –– Bladen, Pender, and Robeson –– attend the charter schools. 

Confusion stemming from differing reporting protocols in each county prompted the Brunswick campuses to stop reporting close-contact data, according to Roger Bacon Academy’s founder, Baker Mitchell. Mitchell said the system was told by some counties it wasn’t necessary to report close contacts, as the health departments had already conducted contract tracing on their own accord and provided their lists to the schools. 

“They felt it was duplicative work,” Mitchell wrote in an emailed statement. “So we stopped reporting contacts to all counties, but we now know that each county has different reporting procedures.”

Mitchell highlighted the governor’s emphasis on the toolkit as including “recommendations” (as opposed to requirements). In crafting its own quarantine procedure, “we have tried to balance the health risks that are present and evidenced by our data with the academic learning losses that lengthy quarantines entail,” Mitchell said. 

“The success of these schools is due in large part to our focus on health and safety as being our first priority,” he said.

Send tips and comments to Johanna F. Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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