Buncombe county and school staff talk COVID-19 protocols, challenges this semester

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News

Buncombe County and school staff discussed the challenges and protocols put in place during the past semester to ensure safe in-person learning as the county is in the midst of a new surge of COVID-19. 

"This has been a really challenging year in many ways," said Meg Turner, principal of Owen High. "However, my hat's off to our staff and our students for consistent efforts to follow protocols outlined by the state and the district."

Stacia Harris, the director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, said the department has appreciated having students back to in-person learning this semester. Following local health department guidelines, she said universal masking, frequent handwashing and vaccine availability will allow for in-person learning to continue. 

"Students need reminders at times, but I am very pleased with the level of respect and cooperation," Turner said, in reference to how students have adapted to COVID-19 protocols. "Students are also good about reminding us that our safety protocols are important."

Recommendations for how to keep schools safe comes from the NC Strong Schools toolkit, a set of guidelines and instructions distributed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. 

Lillian Govus, the director of communications and public engagement for Buncombe County, said the toolkit is defined by the state and recommended to be followed by the county.

At this time, Govus said there has been no indication that protocols will change during the next semester. Harris said if the toolkit is updated, the county school system would review those changes and implement as needed. 

According to Harris, the county school system fielded a few concerns from parents regarding universal masking but the "vast majority" have been comfortable with the guidelines defined in the toolkit. 

The county does not keep specific records of total case numbers by individual schools, but does track clusters. 

Govus said clusters are closely monitored by the county whenever reported. A cluster is defined as a group of five or more cases occurring within a 14 day period. 

Harris said the county system hopes staff and students will continue to follow CDC guidelines regarding travel over the winter vacation.

"Together we are stronger and safer," Turner said.