NC’s private schools face more, larger COVID-19 clusters than public schools

Education

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Private schools in North Carolina have dealt with more and larger COVID-19 clusters than their public counterparts.

CBS17.com analyzed months of biweekly updates from the state Department of Health and Human Services on COVID-19 clusters at schools and child-care facilities in the wake of Gov. Roy Cooper’s newest executive order that tightens the state’s mask mandate and removes the exemption for private schools.

According to the most recent update from DHHS, nearly 70 percent of the cases at the 26 schools currently dealing with active clusters involve private schools.

Slightly over half of the schools on the list are private schools, but those 14 combine for 175 of the 253 cases. They have an average cluster size of 12.5 cases compared to an average of 6.5 cases for the 12 listed public schools.

And all four schools with clusters of 20 or more cases are private schools, led by Liberty Christian Academy in Durham with 26, including 20 students. Two other private schools in the area — Bethesda Christian Academy in Durham and Freedom Christian Academy in Fayetteville — also have clusters of at least 10 cases.

CBS17.com has been tracking clusters at child care facilities and schools since DHHS began releasing biweekly updates in August, and the schools with private schools typically accounting for the largest ones.

The cluster at Wayne Christian School in Goldsboro grew to 35 cases — 29 among students, six among staff members — before it was classified as complete by DHHS on Nov. 10.

Fifteen of the 25 schools on the DHHS list last Friday were private, as were more than two-thirds of the 29 listed schools on Nov. 17.

There are 750 private schools in the state with a total enrollment of about 105,000.

About 40 percent of those private schools are members of the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools. Only two members of that group are experiencing current clusters — Wesleyan Christian Academy and Greensboro Day School, both in Guilford County.

But a large number of private schools aren’t members of that group or the North Carolina Christian Schools Association, and NCAIS Executive Director Linda Nelson told CBS 17 that the members work together to share information and best practices.

“I do think that our schools’ ability to connect with each other and to talk about what they’re doing, really almost agree on a standard of practice or agree to supporting fully what the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and what DHHS says — if you’re in it together, so to speak, the rising tide floats all boats,” Nelson said. “It sets the standard for others to follow.

“I do think there are a lot of schools across the state that don’t have that collegial network,” she added. “They’re not a member of an organized group. They don’t talk to other schools regularly, so they’re really out there on their own to make those decisions. And I think it would be really, really difficult to do that with everything that’s being thrown at us every day.”

Another, more obvious explanation: Private schools have largely held in-person classes since August, while most of their public counterparts began the academic year with online instruction before shifting to some in-person learning in recent weeks.

Nelson says she and her organization support Cooper’s latest order, noting that most, if not all, students and staff members at those schools were already wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.

“For a large majority of our schools, that didn’t change anything with their practices,” Nelson said. “They were already wearing masks all day. They were already 6-foot distances with each other.”

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