North Carolina schools see major COVID spread as year begins

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina health officials on Tuesday released a report showing 170 ongoing COVID-19 clusters in K-12 schools or child care settings.

While the state Department of Health and Human Services said it does not have data on the number of pupils quarantined statewide or the share of those forced to miss school without a remote learning option, districts without mask wearing requirements are seeing substantially more spread of the virus and hours of lost learning among students.

Union County Public Schools, which voted down a proposal Tuesday night to require mask wearing in the state’s sixth-largest public school district, reported about one in 8 of the more than 41,000 students in the district were under quarantine, as of Friday. The more than 5,200 students were placed under quarantine after 337 pupils tested positive for the virus last week.

Meanwhile, the Wake County Public School System, which is four times larger than Union County Public Schools, has less than a fourth the number of students quarantined. Data from the Wake County district shows less than 1,300 of its more than 161,000 pupils were quarantined last week.

In Durham County, where face coverings are also mandatory, the public school district with nearly 31,000 pupils learning in person reported 97 new cases among students last week.

Charter Day School in Brunswick County has the next highest cluster of 81 infected children, followed distantly by Emereau Charter School in Bladen County with 31 infections among students.

Education leaders, health experts and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have all strongly encouraged districts to require mask wearing, even as the governor has refused to require it statewide and instead chosen to leave the decision to local school boards.

Dozens of districts entered the school year with optional mask wearing policies, and nearly all of them have reversed course over the past month as spread of the more contagious delta variant has hit their communities.

But five of the state’s 115 K-12 public school districts, which include the Avery, Onslow, Polk, Union and Yancey county school systems, are still holding out.

The five districts with about 75,000 total pupils represent 5% of the more than 1.4 million public school students in the state.

(WATCH BELOW: Masks to remain optional in Union County schools despite thousands quarantined)