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Nichols: Schools will stay the course

SoVaNow.com / September 30, 2020
Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols says there are no current plans to end in-person learning for elementary school students in Mecklenburg despite the county’s move into the red risk level for the spread of COVID-19.

Red is the highest risk level under metrics developed by the Harvard Global Health Institute. It is described as the “tipping point” when stay-at-home orders to battle the pandemic are deemed necessary.

In a video announcement Monday, Nichols said most of the new virus cases which have put Mecklenburg in the red are tied to a single location where infected persons are “there all the time. They are not getting out into the community, so they are not transmitting it [the virus] to other persons.”

Nichols said he was not in a position to disclose the site of the current outbreak, but the Virginia Department of Corrections has acknowledged 37 currently active cases of the virus among offenders and staff at Baskerville Correctional Center in Baskerville. Only 34 of the 37 cases are associated with inmates at the prison. The other three cases involve employees who are not confined to the facility.

The Virginia Department of Corrections does not provide identifying information on these employees, saying only that under department guidelines infected staff are expected to quarantine at home for at least 14 days or longer if still symptomatic.

As of Tuesday, Mecklenburg County has seen a total of 719 cases of the virus, with 44 hospitalizations and 33 deaths.

More than one person who viewed Nichols’ announcement, which was posted online at MCPSweb.org, questioned the superintendent’s assertion that the virus is “contained” and persons infected are “not transmitting it to other persons.”

Maggie Waddill asked, “If the workers/employees of the jail are not confined to the facility how can you use the words, ‘at a confined location ... but it is a place where the persons that are there are there all the time, [and] …they are not getting out into the community’ with an honest truthful [conscience]?”

Maggie Jacobsohn noted that “basically the workers are putting the outside people at risk by coming and going,” and Mike Smith-Jones called on Nichols to “name one place in this county that has confined workers that don’t go home to families.”

Nichols, however, reassured viewers that outside of the outbreak site, the number of active positive cases in Mecklenburg County is “very low.”

“We have been watching this data every day to see in which direction it would go. I mentioned that when we started school and we happened to be in the red and we have tracked downward since then and we expected that to continue,” he said.

Mecklenburg County Emergency Services Coordinator Jon Taylor reported on Monday that 588 persons in the county have recovered from the virus. Based on those numbers, Mecklenburg County currently has 98 known active cases of the virus not associated with Baskerville Correctional Center. 13 new community-spread cases, beyond the 37 associated with the prison, were reported in the past week.

Nichols predicted that the numbers of new COVID-19 cases would continue to trend down in the county. “We have looked at the projections from the medical professionals. Projections suggest that Mecklenburg County will be in the yellow very soon and possibly though not likely getting into the green.” He anticipated the county would be “back in the orange risk level by Wednesday,” calling the current outbreak a “two-day blip.”

Green is the lowest risk level and is assigned when a locality has less than one case per 100,000 in population. Risk level yellow is the second lowest and suggests the chance exists for community spread of the virus, and the number of known cases is between one and nine persons per 100,000. Currently, Mecklenburg County has 25 cases per 100,000.

Nichols said he and schools officials are “watching the numbers as we get them from [Jon Taylor] to see what’s happening in the rest of the county, and we are confident that we can keep our schools open for the next few days to keep education moving forward as it needs to be.” He also promised to “continue to monitor the numbers as we move forward. We are going to take care of our students and our staff.”

Nichols ended his announcement by saying, “We are comfortable keeping our schools open, educating our students face-to-face, doing the virtual learning for those who have chosen it and for those students who want to come in at the secondary level face-to-face back in as soon as possible.”

Contacted for a comment, School Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt said the board had no plans to meet to discuss the issue of whether to close the schools as it was in the superintendent’s discretion to make that call.

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