A Warren County educator meets with a student behind a mask and a glass partition at the start of school year in 2020. A year later, the district has a vaccine mandate for staff. Photo courtesy of the Warren County Schools.

In Warren County, a rural area of about 20,000 people along the Virginia border northeast of Raleigh, school leaders were troubled this summer over the area’s low COVID-19 vaccination rate.

In August, only about half of the county’s residents were vaccinated, putting them below the state and national averages. So, the district took a step that other school systems might consider drastic: It implemented a vaccine mandate.

“We felt like in order for us to really get a handle on what we were seeing in terms of spread in our schools and in the community … (that) we really needed to kind of tighten up on our mitigation strategies and make those decisions,” said Keith Sutton, interim superintendent of Warren County Schools.

Having a vaccination mandate makes Warren County Schools an outlier, according to a survey by the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network. 

In many counties, school staff members aren’t even tracking vaccination rates of their faculty or staff, let alone requiring a vaccine, even though educators increasingly say they support mandates. 

A National Education Association survey of its members found that 65% favor mandating staff to get the vaccine, and 61% favor their schools’ mandating students ages 12 and older to get the vaccine. 

All the while, schools continue to see COVID-19 outbreaks and clusters. Just this week, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported ongoing clusters at more than 250 schools, with ongoing positive cases from 268 staff members and 2,364 students.

The deadline for all school faculty, staff and student-athletes to get the vaccine in Warren County is Saturday. Countywide, the vaccination rate has ticked up slightly from 50% in August to 53% in early October.

Some faculty members raised questions, but not many, Sutton said. At least as many people have told him they support the mandate as have told him they oppose it, he said. Fewer than 10 school staff members have asked for exemptions.

Among student-athletes, the objection rate has been relatively low as well, according to Sutton, who is also chairman of the Wake County Board of Education. He points out that athletes have always had to pass physicals and maintain academic and behavioral benchmarks to play sports.

“They’re feeling like we’re forcing them to make a choice between getting vaccinated or being able to play sports, and so there’s some that have voiced some concerns,” Sutton said. “This is not uncommon to have participation in sports being conditional upon a performance requirement.”

The N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network made efforts to reach out to every school district in the state with survey questions about how they are implementing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Reporters received responses from just under half of the districts.

Not all districts have same protections in place

When it comes to vaccine mandates, most school systems take the opposite approach from Warren County.

“We do not think that it is needed currently,” Person County Schools spokeswoman Tracy Scruggs said in an email. “Our staff positive cases are very low.”

As of Oct. 5, Person County reported ongoing COVID-19 clusters at 10 schools, with positive cases from 10 staff members and 210 students, at both public and private schools.

Person County has a total public and private student population of just 4,367, meaning those cases represent more than 1 positive case for every 25 students in the county. That’s the highest rate of any county in the state.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Orange and Durham County public school systems all have vaccine mandates in place for their staff members, although religious and medical exemptions are allowed.

“The goal is to make sure we can continue to offer in-person learning opportunities, which are greatly needed for our students’ learning and overall well-being,” Orange County Schools spokesperson Amanda Bunch wrote in an email.

Other counties don’t have a mandate, though some are tracking vaccination status. Dare County, for instance, reported a 90% vaccination rate for all staff by Sept. 22. No ongoing COVID-19 clusters in Dare County existed as of Oct. 5.

Not all schools have taken advantage of testing option

To track cases across school districts, testing plays an important role. But not every school system has COVID-19 testing practices in place, even though DHHS has offered funding for schools to provide testing.

State health officials launched a pilot testing program in December for schools all over the state. More than 70,000 rapid tests were performed, and the program worked, according to DHHS. The initial experience with the pilot program led the state to offer two programs to schools statewide. 

The first is a state-contracted vendor-testing option in which the state provides a vendor to schools at no cost. The second option is for independent testing in which schools may choose a nonstate-sponsored vendor to perform testing and DHHS will provide the tests to all schools in the district.

Schools that participate in testing are eligible to receive funding from the state for temporary staff like registered nurses, licensed practical nurses or unlicensed assistive personnel to support student health.

As of mid-September, 89 school districts and 211 private and charter schools had opted into the state’s testing program, though not all have started testing yet. The state piloted its screening program this spring and announced statewide testing vendors in August. 

Since then, hundreds of schools or school districts have signed up, but many have yet to start testing or approve a plan for doing so. North Carolina has 115 school districts, 200 charter schools and 750 independent schools. 

Will it work?

Findings from ABC Science Collaborative suggest that many parents can be cautiously optimistic. Funded through the National Institutes of Health, the collaborative is coordinated by the Duke School of Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Schools that followed recommendations, especially on vaccination and masking, saw less transmission of COVID-19, the collaborative said in a report to school and state leaders.

“We know that if our goal is to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools, there are two effective ways to do that. 1: vaccination. 2: masking,” said Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, a co-chair of the ABC collaborative. 

“In the setting of schools … the science suggests masking can be extremely effective, particularly for those who can’t get vaccinated while COVID-19 is still circulating.”

In Warren County, the regulations seem to be working. Sutton, the interim superintendent, says case and quarantine numbers for the school are down.

“We’re small, but Warren County Schools is the largest employer in the county,” Sutton said. “We feel like we’re setting the tone for other employers in the county to encourage their employees to do the same.” 

“This is an important statement and one that we hope will push folks to do what needs to be done,” Sutton said.

This story was jointly reported and edited by Kate Martin and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Sara Coello of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Michael Praats of WECT; Emily Walkenhorst, Travis Fain, Ali Ingersoll and Ashley Talley of WRAL; and Liz Schlemmer and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.

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The NC Watchdog Reporting Network is a cooperative effort of investigative journalists representing seven news organizations across North Carolina. Participants include Carolina Public Press, the Charlotte Observer, the News and Observer, WBTV, WECT, WRAL and WUNC. Email CPP's news team at info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the NC Watchdog Reporting Network.