The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

COVID-19 has severely impacted the custodial staff at Smoky Mountain High School. Of an eight-person staff, Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan reports one positive case and five custodians isolating due to exposure to the victim.

Another custodian is home with a child from Smokey Mountain Elementary School, which has gone to remote-only instruction due to a COVID cluster. That student has not shown symptoms of COVID, Buchanan said.

The school system is organizing personnel to handle the challenge and the high school will stay safe and clean, he said.

“We have some part-time custodians who we are going to make full-time for the next two weeks,” he said. “We also have bus drivers who we are going to allow to get up to 40 hours who have previously served as custodians.”

The school has additional staff who have been trained in the sanitation effort who will take on those duties, including some teachers.

“They will be compensated,” Buchanan said. “But they volunteered to come in and help keep the schools safe. Right now, staffing-wise on the custodians, while it will be a logistical hardship on the school, we don’t see it posing a problem with the school being able to maintain its level of COVID cleanliness.”

The majority of the custodians also drive buses and getting those routes covered is the real challenge, he said.

The schools have so far avoided serious issues with COVID, but schools reflect the rise in the community, he said. 

“The numbers are going up in our community, so the numbers are going up in our school,” Buchanan said. “We are continuing to have to ask our staff to do more and more to be able to operate our schools. People keep stepping up.”

On Monday, the Jackson County Department of Public Health identified a cluster of eight positive COVID-19 cases at Smokey Mountain Elementary, according to a release from Jackson County Public Schools. The eight are four students and four staff members.

A “cluster” is defined by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as five or more positive test results within a 14-day period and a plausible epidemiological linkage between cases.

Everyone who tested positive at the school is in isolation and following guidance from health care professionals. The names of those who test positive cannot be released due to privacy laws.

The source of the infection is unknown, however contact tracing is underway by the health department. School staff were set to receive COVID-19 testing at Harris Regional Hospital on Wednesday. 

Out of an abundance of caution, instruction at the school was transitioned to remote-only for the remainder of the week, JCPS said. The district’s eight other schools continued on their current schedule, but students associated with an identified virus cluster or live in the same household with someone who tests positive are quarantined and moved temporarily to remote learning.

A decision about returning to face-to-face instruction at SMES will be made on Friday after officials receive updates on contact tracing and virus testing.

Upon discovering the COVID-19 cluster at SMES, the district took immediate steps to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

The school building has been disinfected, and additional resources will be deployed for deep cleaning. Staff at the school are working from home, and the School Nutrition Department is moving quickly to make sure meals are available for students while they are learning remotely.

Despite the week’s surge in positive cases, Jackson County Public Schools continues to maintain a lower infection rate than the surrounding area. Buchanan credits the district’s commitment to following the safety guidelines recommended by health professionals.

“We are requiring masks, we have regular handwashing intervals and we are doing the best we can to maintain social distance,” Buchanan said. “We believe with the measures we are taking, students are still less likely to contract COVID-19 in our schools than they are in the community at large.”