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NC K-12 schools seeing most cluster-related COVID-19 cases of the pandemic to date

State health officials say COVID-19 clusters in child care and schools have increased in recent weeks, with K-12 settings seeing the most cluster-related cases yet.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For many in North Carolina, school is just barely underway, but COVID-19 is already making a dent in the new school year, particularly with K-12 classrooms.

A new coronavirus cluster report from North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services shows cluster-related cases rising in child care, college, and K-12 settings during the month of August. In the latest week of data, the week of Aug. 15, K-12 schools saw the most cluster-related cases of the pandemic.

According to NCDHHS, a cluster is a group of at least five cases -- all in the same place, during the same timeframe, and plausibly linked.

Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease specialist with Novant Health, says the spread in schools is no surprise, given the higher transmissibility of the delta variant.

"You may get instances where, in a particular school, the outbreak is big enough that you have to go back to online learning for a few weeks to get through it," Priest said. "The way to avoid that is masking and social distancing and taking this seriously, and I think most school systems are doing that."

This school year, masking is not mandated on a state level. Instead, Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged districts, themselves, to install their own requirements.

Over the summer, most of the Charlotte-area districts voted for optional masking, but as community spread grew, many have reversed course. More districts than not are now mandating masks in the classroom.

The state's latest cluster report shows 26 schools in the greater Charlotte region are dealing with clusters. More than a quarter are in Rowan County schools. The most cluster-related cases in the state are at Union Academy Charter School, which has 107 cases among students and staff, according to NCDHHS.

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram