As local school systems make changes, state scales back recommendations on masks, contact tracing

As more local school systems are moving away from requiring masks indoors and other changes to COVID-19 protocols, the state is now moving that way as well.

According to the updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit released Thursday, contact tracing in K-12 schools will also no longer  be recommended or required.

“Dare County Schools has been following the toolkit and does not have policies that will need to be adjusted based on these changes. With the support of our local health director, Dr. Sheila Davies, we will be implementing these changes effective immediately,” according to an email sent to parents Thursday afternoon.

Students in Dare schools will no longer be excluded from school as long as they remain symptom-free, but individuals who test positive or have symptoms will have to remain out of school for 5 days and be required to wear a mask on days 6-10 after returning to school.

The Dare County Board of Education lifted the mask mandate on Wednesday, while Currituck and Gates schools will drop their requirements on Monday. Votes by other school boards in the region are pending at their scheduled meetings this week and next week.

Masks are still required on all school buses under federal transportation mandates.

The statewide implementation is scheduled to go into effect on February 21 to allow school districts time to make policy changes as necessary.

“We are committed to ensuring North Carolinians have the guidance and information necessary to balance their risk during each stage of the pandemic and learn to live with COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. “Keeping kids in the classroom remains a top priority. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we evaluate which tools are most effective to protect students and staff. 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.”

Building on lessons learned during the Omicron surge and throughout the pandemic, NCDHHS continues to emphasize public health tools that are most effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19. These tools, which are outlined in the toolkit guidance, include promoting getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask while transmission rates are high, getting tested and staying home if sick.

“Our COVID-19 response is built on teamwork and trust between local officials, school nursing staff, child care staff and parents as we follow the science and use the best public health tools available to protect our children,” said State Health Director and NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D. “When conditions change, we adapt our tools, prioritize what works and stay focused on our shared goal — keeping our children healthy and learning.”

NCHDSS said contact tracing has been an important tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and it remains important in certain high-risk congregate settings.

However, several factors at this stage of the pandemic have lessened the overall effectiveness of contact tracing in K-12 schools and the broader community. These factors include:

  • Emergence of variants with shorter incubation periods and rapid transmission.
  • People with infections are most contagious prior to symptom onset and during the first few days of illness.
  • Larger number of asymptomatic and less severe cases due, in part, to more immunity from vaccination and past infection.
  • Many infections are never identified by public health agencies because people with asymptomatic or mild cases may not get tested and due to the Increasing use of “over-the-counter” at-home tests.
  • Widespread virus and low rates of case and contact identification limit effectiveness of contact tracing to reduce transmission.

Although exclusion from school is no longer recommended following an exposure, notification of potential exposure is recommended. The updated toolkit includes options for schools to notify potentially exposed students or staff when a COVID-19 case is identified in the school setting. Local schools and health departments may opt to continue contact tracing; NCDHHS has provided suggested strategies in the toolkit for schools to consider based on local conditions.

NCDHHS said they regularly update the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to ensure local K-12 schools have the best tools available to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and keep students in the classroom while also providing flexibility for schools and local health departments to use local data to evaluate and respond to local conditions.