Mecklenburg County Manager to unilaterally reopen in-person Pre-K against wishes of majority of Pre-K teachers

Meck Pre-K will reopen its doors for in-person instruction beginning on September 1 despite community COVID infection rates that are keeping all K-12 Charlotte Mecklenburg schools closed for the foreseeable future.

In announcing the move, Meck Pre-K said the decision had been made “after extensive discussions with officials from Mecklenburg County, the NC Division of Public Health and the NCDHHS.”

It wasn’t made after discussions with Mecklenburg County Commissioners, though. Rather, this was a unilateral decision by County Manager Dena Diorio.

Diorio also moved unilaterally to drop the income cap which previously ensured the program would serve Mecklenburg County’s neediest children.

Meck Pre-K’s announcement says it “distributed surveys to families, teachers, and providers to gather feedback on the coming school year,” and that “across all groups, the majority of respondents expressed a desire for children to return to the classroom even in light of the ongoing public health situation.”

The announcement doesn’t mention the fact that only 11% of the teachers surveyed said they preferred to return to in-person instruction. 74% said remote would be a better option and 16% were neutral.

There is no question that virtual instruction pales in comparison to an in-person education, especially for our youngest students.

But whether or not it’s prudent to do that at a time when Mecklenburg County’s percent positive COVID test rate is hovering around 9% deserves transparent and robust discussion by our community and elected officials.

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COVID fears of Union County educators fall on deaf ears at board meeting

Image credit WRAL

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Union County Board of Education, local educators showed up to make the case that reopening for in-person instruction is too risky given the county’s high COVID infection rates.

Their comments fell on deaf ears.

Union County’s percent positive test rate is hovering around 10%, which is double the CDC Director’s recommended level for districts to consider opening for students.

Pam Carlton, president of Union County Association of Educators (UCAE), rose to present survey data she and her colleagues collected on employee comfort level with returning to in-person instruction. Ms. Carlton was cut off before she could finish–despite board policy which allows representatives of groups extended speaking time.

The data UCAE collected shows that more than 83% of Union County Public Schools employees would prefer opening schools in Plan C, fully remote instruction.

Of survey respondents, only 8.6% said they were comfortable with Union County’s current return to work plan.

Local educators Sophia Stephenson and Brittany Gendron also spoke on behalf of educators who are concerned about their own safety and that of their students.

Stephenson referred to the current plan as “Russian roulette.” Gendron told the board she was prepared during lockdowns to take a bullet for her students and that “COVID is a bullet we can see coming. It’s already here.”

Board chair Melissa Merrell and her colleagues were unmoved by the comments and showed no sign of budging on the district’s plan to open to students on August 17. Merrell noted that “it was a decision handed down by the governor for Plan B” but did not mention that Governor Cooper’s approach allows for communities hit hard by COVID to open in Plan C.

Over half of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have opted to open in some form of remote learning.

As Union County’s board meeting ended, Brittany Gendron was overcome with emotion and broke down, saying “83 percent of staff want Plan C. You won’t even consider it?”

The official Union County Public Schools livestream quickly cut off, but the moment was captured by a WBTV reporter:

NC Department of Public Instruction seeks State Board’s approval for in-person standardized testing during remote learning

image by Nan Fulcher

As North Carolina’s schools prepare to begin a year that will be anything but standard, Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff will propose at Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education that school districts be able to administer in-person standardized testing, even in cases where the district is operating in Plan C due to dangerously high levels of community COVID spread.

testing-presentation-SBE-Aug-5-5

DPI’s recommendation is that the State Board “approve for the 2020–21 school year that for the  beginning-of-grade 3, the end-of-grade and the end-of-course assessments, remote learning students will participate at an on-site location as determined by the public school unit.”

The proposal is being presented for Action on First Reading, with DPI staff noting that it would be “beneficial to approve prior to the beginning of the 2020–21 school year.”

The recommendation does say that districts may elect to delay testing until students return to school but emphasizes the importance of testing for informing stakeholders on student mastery of content and school performance.

You can view Wednesday’s presentation materials in their entirety below.

The meeting begins at 10 AM and will be livestreamed here.

testing-presentation-SBE-Aug-5

The disproportionate COVID toll on People of Color in Mecklenburg County

sources: mcmap.org/qol, mecknc.gov

As the public rhetoric over school reopening decisions heats up, it’s impossible to ignore that the loudest voices calling for schools to open for in-person instruction are those who are suffering least from the impacts of COVID: white people of means with school-age children.

The most recently published county data shows 29.2% of reported COVID cases in Mecklenburg are Hispanic residents–despite the fact that they comprise only 13.8% of the population.

Earlier this month, figures from the Center for Disease Control, obtained only after the New York Times sued for their release, showed those troubling trends extend nationwide. Latino and African American residents are three times as likely as white people to become infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die.

As for the why, People of Color are more likely to live in close quarters and to work in service and production jobs that can’t be done remotely. They are also less likely to have health insurance, and while insurance policies can be purchased on the open marketplace by those who don’t qualify for Medicaid, those policies come with huge deductibles and copays that effectively discourage people from seeking treatment when they need it.

Medical facilities that serve mostly low-income patients are less likely to have the resources for effective COVID treatment, because their profit margins are small and they have to write off unpaid bills as charity.

According to statistics on racial health disparities, treatment in hospitals often breaks down along racial lines as well. Emergency rooms assign patients numbers to indicate their level of medical attention urgency. Black patients are 7% less likely than white patients to receive high urgency rankings, and Black and Hispanic patients are 10% less likely to be approved for a transition from emergency room to intensive care.

Mark Jerrell serves as Mecklenburg County Commissioner for District 4, the area of Mecklenburg County that is experiencing some of the most severe impacts of COVID. Jerrell says, “COVID19 speaks to a larger problem in our society, particularly as it relates to People of Color. And that is the legacy of systemic institutional racism that has created barriers of inequity that we already knew existed. So the challenge remains: What are we going to do about it to provide a level playing field for all of our residents and particularly for People of Color?”

As we continue to engage in important conversations about the best way to proceed on K-12 education during a pandemic, let’s be sure to remember who this virus is hitting the hardest and make decisions with those facts in mind.

CDC Director calls for schools to remain closed if positive tests exceed 5%. Mecklenburg is more than double that.

Mecklenburg County percent positive COVID rates through July 22. Source: MeckNC.gov

In a Friday phone call about new guidelines around school reopening, Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Robert Redfield told reporters that “hot spots” of COVID infection where schools should stay closed should be defined as communities where “the percent positivity rate within the community is greater than 5%.”

Over the last seven days of available data, Mecklenburg County has averaged 10.97%.

Redfield’s comments came a day after the CDC released updated guidelines for schools that are trying to figure out how to safely educate K-12 children in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

The CDC guidelines say, “It is important to consider community transmission risk as schools reopen. Evidence from schools internationally suggests that school re-openings are safe in communities with low SARS-CoV-2 transmission rates.”

President Trump conceded shortly before the guidelines were released that “cities or states that are current hot spots” may need to stay closed. It was a major about face for a man who just two weeks ago was threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t reopen.

In the Friday phone call with reporters, Director Redfield was asked what metric was used to define a “hot spot”:

You mentioned a few times that in hot spots, that there may be, you may need to keep schools closed for a time. My question is how much of the country right now would you consider to be a hot spot? Because a lot of times we look at this and we see a large swatch of the country across the Southeast with hot spots. Are those considered hot spots?

Here’s how Redfield responded:

When you look at the hot spots, I think most of us right now are looking where the percent positivity rate within the community is greater than 5%. And a lot of times the maps you see aren’t granular area to let you see rather than light up a whole state, it may be really several counties that meet that criteria. And it is quite dynamic. It is changing. You know, a number of counties now are substantially improving. There are several counties getting where there is an increase in percent positive. That’s why it’s so important for the local education boards and local health departments to look exactly at the data in their environment at this moment in time.

The 5% positive metric mentioned by Dr. Redfield is the same benchmark being used by Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, where schools are permitted to reopen when regional infection rates are 5% or lower over a 14 day average.

Yesterday New York registered its lowest number of COVID hospitalizations since mid March.

Candidate for state superintendent Jen Mangrum calls for increased transparency at the Department of Public Instruction

by Dr. Jennifer Mangrum, candidate for the office of NC state superintendent

Transparency is obviously an important feature of democratic institutions like the Department of Public Instruction and our schools. A functioning democracy rests on providing voters and policymakers with the information they need to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, too many politicians claim they value transparency while running for office only to backtrack once assuming office. I firmly believe that a dedication to transparency will do more than just better inform the public. If implemented wisely, a dedication to transparency will also strengthen our policy-making process. 

There are many ways in which the Superintendent can advance the various aspects of transparency. 

For the press, transparency means quick access to accurate information. They would like Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled in a timely manner. Under the current Superintendent, turnaround times for these requests have taken far too long. 

For researchers, a dedication to transparency means making school data more readily available and usable. Historically, the agency has done a good job of making data publicly available on its website. However, a recent website redesign disappeared some previously available data and reports. I would change the presentation of that data to make it easier for researchers to identify how data has changed over time. 

For lawmakers interested in the proper stewardship of state funds, transparency under my watch will mean adherence to state procurement and contracting processes. Under my watch, these efforts will follow the advice of experts. I will not intervene, as my predecessor has, to direct contracts to cronies or illegally divert school district money to buy unneeded iPads. 

For advocates and community members, I think we can do a better job of making state and district budget and spending data more accessible. Additionally, I have pledged to establish an internal office of equity that will help identify areas where we’re failing to provide students with the opportunity to flourish. 

Transparency has always been about more than just providing additional access to information. One of the more important ways I’ll advance transparency is by giving educators a voice in our policymaking process. For the past four years, policymaking has too often been “done” to our educators. I know we need a different approach. We make smarter decisions when we harness educators’ on-the-ground expertise. Whether via surveys or the establishment of elected advisory boards, I’m continuing to explore options to provide educators with an authentic voice in the policymaking process. 

Finally, transparent also means “free from pretense or deceit.” My opponent has had some difficulty adhering to this concept. On June 25 th , EdNC asked us to explain how we would work with the Governor and General Assembly. As part of her response, my opponent falsely claimed she worked, “to pass the largest single teacher pay raise in North Carolina history” while working as Pat McCrory’s education advisor in 2016. This is not anywhere close to true. My records only go back 27 years, but over that period there were 11 other teacher pay raises that were larger than the plan she worked on. 

This deceit is part of a pattern. As part of the McCrory administration, my opponent overstated the size of her boss’s budget proposal, understated the extent to which teacher turnover rose under Republican rule, and most famously tried to claim that the budget she worked on was going to take average teacher salaries north of $50,000. 

It’s clear that we have a tremendous opportunity to once again make transparency – in all of its aspects – a priority at DPI. By being open, inclusive, and, most importantly, honest, we will do a better job of identifying the barriers to flourishing faced by our students and teachers while making smarter decisions about the policies that affect their success.

“I am petrified”: CMS educators set the record straight on their feelings about teaching in person during the COVID pandemic

image credit: Nan Fulcher

Recent comments about Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employee survey data by a member of the Board of Education who is pushing for a reopening of schools are not sitting well with local educators.  

Many of those educators are weighing in on a new informal survey created by education advocates to gauge employee sentiment about a potential return to in-person instruction during the COVID pandemic.  The results of that survey will be shared at Tuesday’s board meeting, where educators plan to address the board to share their personal stories and feelings about the topic.

On July 7, employees of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools received a non-binding Intent to Return survey designed to inform district plans around staffing for school year 2020-21.  

The survey allowed employees to indicate their preference between the following options:

Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor

Resign

Retire

I have applied or intend to apply for a leave of absence related to COVID-19

I am requesting an alternative work arrangement, e.g. working remotely, if available for my position, for reasons related to COVID-19

The “alternative work arrangement” option was available only to employees who qualified as high risk:

High-risk categories include individuals 65 years or older or those with underlying medical conditions such as the following:

• People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
• People who have serious heart conditions or who are immunocompromised
• People with diabetes, chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis or renal failure or liver disease
• People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)

It’s worth noting that ‘pregnant or planning to become pregnant’ is absent from the high-risk list, despite increasing indications that pregnant women are more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID than other women their age and evidence that the virus can be passed in utero.

For educators like myself who took this survey, the choices essentially boiled down to “have a job” or “not be able to feed your kids.”  

Indeed, of the 12,073 responses registered on the survey, 10,651 selected Remain in current school assignment and report in-person to work as directed by my principal or supervisor.

Board members were informed of the Intent to Return survey results the morning of July 15, the same day an emergency meeting was scheduled where the board planned to vote on whether to open schools under moderate social distancing guidelines (Plan B) or fully remote (Plan C).  (The board would vote 7-1 at that meeting in favor of a slightly different model in which students and staff would report to school for two weeks of socially distant in-person onboarding before returning to remote instruction.  Only District 6 board member Sean Strain voted against the plan, arguing that students needed to be in school.)

In informing board members about the survey data, Human Resources Director Christine Pejot cautioned there could be what she termed “false positives” among responses indicating employees intended to report on-site.  She advised board members to be aware that intentions could change based on a number of factors including increases in COVID cases in Mecklenburg County.

In a July 18 WFAE story, Sean Strain was quoted as having said in a text message “Kids are being kept from their best educational environment because 10% of the teachers are afraid to work in the schools,” ostensibly referring to the relatively high percentage of staff who had indicated they would remain in their current school assignment on the Intent to Return survey.

Many CMS educators were not happy with having their survey responses characterized that way, noting that the questionnaire didn’t ask anyone about their feelings. 

Veteran West Charlotte High School teacher Erlene Lyde said, “I am petrified at the thought of entering a school building with students and other  adults. Being in a space where I know the viral load is increasing exponentially by the second makes me anxious, worried and afraid. No question on that intent form was designed to capture that fear.” 

Melissa Easley, a teacher at McClintock Middle School, added, “No one should have to choose between their job and the safety of themselves and their families.”

In response to social media outrage, Strain initially posted “I have NEVER said that 12% are afraid to return” and referred to claims to the contrary as “a false narrative.”  He later said he didn’t recall having sent the text before eventually acknowledging that he had–and that WFAE reporter Steve Harrison had represented it accurately.

A group of local education advocates has now created a survey to collect some actual data on the feelings of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employees about the prospect of returning to in-person classes.  The survey results will be presented during the public comments portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Board of Education.  

At the time of this writing, with over 3,000 responses, only 21.6% indicated they felt “confident” about returning to the school building for Plan B (moderate social distancing), with more than 78% saying they were either “hesitant” or “not confident.”

Those numbers closely mirror Senator Natasha Marcus’s recent data collection, which found that 76.7% of public school employees thought schools should do remote instruction only until COVID numbers improved.

You can tune in to tonight’s school board meeting on Facebook Live at 6 pm here.

Plan C is the right choice for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Today the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education will vote on whether to reopen schools (Plan B) or to continue with remote instruction for the time being (Plan C). It’s a decision with huge ramifications for nearly 150,000 students and 20,000 employees.

The board will enter closed session at 3:30 and is scheduled to begin a public meeting at 4:30 where a vote will be held. You can view the meeting on Facebook Live here.

Reopening schools would have 1/3 of students rotate through at a time while the other 2/3 learn at home or at a daycare facility with other children.

Under Plan B, parents would also have the option of choosing full remote if they are not comfortable with the risk of sending their children to school. Although there would likely be a limited number of “alternative assignment” remote teaching positions available to people who fit certain high risk categories, thousands of CMS employees would not have a choice but to return to full time face-to-face work.

COVID is still largely a mystery to medical experts, and while we can say that health and safety are our number one priorities, we have to admit that none of us has a real handle on how much danger we’re facing right now or how much risk we’d be taking on by opening our buildings to in-person learning. We don’t know if this virus can be contracted twice, we don’t know how much children spread it, and we don’t know what the permanent damage to the bodies of those who survive COVID-19 might be.

In fact, about the only things we know for sure is that this virus is highly contagious, potentially deadly and that it is disproportionately impacting families of color. We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your safest way to not get it is to avoid crowds of people.

I think every educator agrees that the best place for our students is in school. We feel that in the very fabric of who we are, and it’s the reason that we stay in this often underpaid and under-respected profession, because we know that our schools can open doors of opportunity for our students and provide for so many of their needs.

With all of that said, as we weigh the risks and benefits of each approach we have to look at the data and the facts. Yesterday North Carolina set new records in single day deaths from COVID and new hospitalizations, and COVID infection rates in Mecklenburg County are much higher than they are anywhere else in NC.

If the Governor’s offering of an optional plan C for any county that needs it was the right choice for any county it would be Mecklenburg.

That’s why the most prudent choice for our board today is Plan C. I would like to see our board work with local and state health officials and take a systematic, data-driven approach to this problem by setting a benchmark infection rate goal for our community to achieve before the risk is low enough to justify reopening schools. A decision of this kind of importance should be made through that kind of careful consideration of facts and data and not through emotions.

I wish our local officials the best as they grapple with how to best guide our community through this difficult time.

A warning for Governor Cooper: the burden of COVID-19 in NC is far higher than in countries that struggled with school outbreaks after reopening

co authored by Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter

Governor Roy Cooper is expected to announce today whether North Carolina’s schools will fully reopen, reopen to reduced numbers of students, or remain closed and continue with remote learning when the 2020-21 school year begins on August 17.

On Saturday we wrote about the COVID-19 data that North Carolina school officials are mulling over. In analyzing the specific points presented by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to the NC State Board of Education, we noted the scarcity of information on COVID-19 spread in schools, and the potential for misinterpreting the few studies that do exist.

In our article, we only addressed the studies cited by the NCDHHS that supported the statement “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission.”

We did not address the fact that the NCDHHS failed to include other data in their report — information about countries that had already reopened their schools prior to the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

To shed more light on reopened schools, we now highlight a recent New York Times (NYT) article, which was published the same day as our last blog article.

The NYT outlines critical considerations for reopening U.S. schools, citing much of the same research we analyzed — and identifying the same flaws.

In addition, the authors discuss what happened when countries reopened their schools following initial closure due to the first COVID-19 cases. Information about reopened schools was absent from the NCDHHS’s literature review. This data could have greatly helped to inform discussion about North Carolina’s plan for the upcoming school year.

The NYT article cites the report entitled “Summary of School Re-Opening Models and Implementation Approaches During the COVID 19 Pandemic, which was distributed by the University of Washington Department of Global Health (updated 7-6-2020). 

To set the stage for analyzing the UW report, we generated some values that reflect the COVID-19 burden in each country at the time they reopened their schools. Because the studies had different methods for determining transmission rates, direct comparison of each country’s infection data was not possible.

Therefore, to illustrate the prevalence of COVID-19 in each country, we determined the number of new daily cases expressed as a fraction of the country’s total population. (For example, Denmark had 198 new reported cases the day schools reopened; that value divided by the total population of 5.8 million equals 0.34 cases/10,000 people) [source of data for new daily cases and cumulative cases]

Table 1. COVID-19 infection data from six countries on the date that schools reopened.

In the UW report, the authors considered Denmark and Norway to be among the European countries with low community transmission, while Germany was considered to be “higher”. This conclusion doesn’t track with our calculations, but high variability among the number of new daily case reports at the time could account for the discrepancy.

As for the outcome of reopening schools, the UW report presented the following results: [*NOTE: each country employed different mitigation measures and different strategies for grouping students and determining which ages returned to school.] 

Denmark and Norway – These two countries reopened schools gradually, starting with preschool and then all students six weeks later. This approach did not result in an increased rate of growth of COVID-19 cases in either country.

Germany – The return of older students later in the reopening process was accompanied by increased transmission among students; staff infection rates were equivalent to that of the general population. Individual schools were closed for quarantine as outbreaks occurred. Recently, Germany closed a small number of schools preemptively in response to local community outbreaks.

Israel – Schools adopted fewer social distancing measures due to crowding. After reopening schools, over 300 children and staff were infected within a month, with over 130 cases at a single school. Around 200 schools out of 5,200 were closed for quarantine during June, others remaining open through the end of the month. 

South Korea – Soon after reopening, schools near a warehouse facility outbreak were closed and other schools postponed reopening. Other closings have occurred in response to other small community clusters. No reports of school-related infections have been reported to date.

France – There were no publications on the outcome, but news accounts indicate that, despite a small number of cases (70 per 1.2 million students) after gradual opening in mid-May, cases have subsided and schools have fully reopened with no additional outbreaks.

The overall conclusion from UW was that reopening schools in countries where community transmission was low did not increase overall spread, but opening schools in countries where community transmission was higher correlated with school outbreaks and subsequent school closures. 

To consider how reopening U.S. schools will compare to the other countries’ experiences, we looked at the current data for new daily cases for the entire country and for North Carolina (Table 2). 

Table 2. Current COVID-19 infection data (7-11-2020) for the United States and North Carolina.

It’s clear that none of the countries that reopened schools in late spring had anywhere near the extent of COVID-19 that’s present in the U.S

Further, the value for new daily cases from each country that reopened schools (with the exception of Israel) continued to decline after school was back in session. 

With transmission rates continuing to rise in the U.S. and in North Carolina, the number of daily new cases in both places could double by the time school starts on August 17th.

If the experience of other countries holds true — that COVID-19 spread in reopened schools reflects the prevalence of the infection in the community — reopening schools where the number of active cases is high would present an enormous risk for students and staff in those areas. 

Even if children don’t pass along SARS-CoV-2 as easily as adults, there could still be a significant increase in spread among students and their families in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

NC school officials urgently need to consider the lessons from other countries’ school reopening experiences, and look at the pace at which the virus is spreading right now … and where it’s predicted to be this fall and beyond.

Nan Fulcher earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina, specializing in infectious disease research. She’s involved in science and outdoor education programming for children and does freelance graphic design.

Here’s what North Carolina health officials might be missing in the data they’re using to push school reopening

co authored by Nan Fulcher and Justin Parmenter

This week state health agencies presented information to the North Carolina State Board of Education regarding COVID-19 and schools.  

Representatives of both the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and the North Carolina Pediatric Society made the case that the risk of children spreading COVID-19 in schools is minimal and must be balanced against student needs that can be most effectively met with schools open.

The presentation offered a potential preview of a school reopening announcement that Governor Roy Cooper is expected to make in the next few days.

However, the data that NCDHHS is using to drive this important conversation doesn’t necessarily support the conclusion that opening schools is safe for our children, and grim anecdotal evidence emerging from around the country suggests the actual risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools may be much higher than currently predicted.

During this week’s state board meeting, State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Tilson advised board members that “Schools have not really seemed to play a major role in transmission” and talked through this series of bullet points downplaying the possibility that North Carolina’s schools could become a hotbed for COVID-19:

Navigating-COVID-19-Schools-primer-3

The original source of the information on this slide is the Massachusetts Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance document, which was released last month as that state’s plan for the 2020-21 school year. The evidence for that document’s statement “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission” is based on the following studies:  

1) In France, a February study of one of the very first accounts of COVID-19 in Europe, involved a nine-year-old child who went to three different schools following infection by an adult and none of the 115 contacts at those facilities contracted the virus. 

2) In Ireland, 3 children and 3 adults who tested positive for COVID-19 at different schools in March didn’t infect any of the 1,155 total individuals with whom they had some sort of contact.

3) In Australia, evaluation of the 863 contacts encountered by 9 students and 9 teachers at their corresponding primary and secondary schools in April showed that only one other student became infected.

 4) A review article from early May, analyzing COVID-19 case clusters. For example, a cluster would consist of an infected person as well as anyone else who got infected directly by the individual or secondarily via the individual’s network. The study examined the location of transmission and showed that only 4% (8 of 210) of the clusters involved schools.

This small collection of studies provides minimal evidence for the dynamics of COVID-19 spread in schools. Thus, the NCDHHS summary statement that “schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission” may convey a more definitive conclusion than warranted, especially to those unfamiliar with the data. 

A closer analysis of the four studies reveal flaws that further call this conclusion into question.

One pitfall has to do with the reason there are so few studies about viral transmission in schools in the first place.

When the virus started to spread in the Spring of 2020, schools were quickly closed. The only studies about the virus in schools come from public health teams that were able to document cases just as in-person classes were being cancelled. And once schools closed, the chance to study COVID-19 in that setting disappeared.

The fact that schools weren’t open during the majority of the study period affects the interpretation of this research. In the case studies from France, Ireland, and Australia, infected people were pulled out of school immediately, disrupting transmission. Of course this is proper procedure from a public health standpoint, but it might not reflect what would happen in every school going forward. For example, if an infected subject didn’t seek testing or quarantine as rapidly, the transmission rate could be much higher. There is also the potential for spread by infected, but asymptomatic, individuals.

Another consideration is that when these studies were being done in the Spring of 2020, SARS-CoV-2 was truly exotic, with single cases (typically acquired by travel) dropping into an unsuspecting community. 

Today, after months of full-on community spread–not to mention the alarming rates of infection in many areas of the U.S.–it’s more likely that schools will be contending with multiple cases simultaneously, and on a continuing basis. These factors would almost certainly cause higher transmission rates compared to those from the earlier reports.

The other NCDHHS bullet point “If infected, children may be less likely to infect others with COVID-19” is also undermined by school closings. 

In the three reports cited for this statement, pediatric cases from China, Switzerland, and the U.S. (Chicago) were being collected just as schools were shutting down. Thus, the conclusion that children weren’t spreading to other children was skewed by the fact that routine contact with their schoolmates and playmates was no longer occurring. Instead, children were isolated within their family group, which may or may not have included other children.

Even the results of the cluster analysis are likely to be skewed because it’s not a fair comparison. 

Infection clusters can’t develop in schools when the doors are locked. In contrast, activities like in-person church attendance, which is still going strong in some places, can spawn new clusters. Thus, the number of religious gathering clusters would be over-represented in a survey like this, undercutting the proportion–and therefore underestimating the significance–of school clusters.

It’s also important to note that, in identifying the eight school clusters in their study, the authors actually prove that schools CAN be a focal point of viral spread.

One of the clusters cited is the dramatic case associated with the Salanter Akiba Riverdale school in New York, where over sixty people including staff, students, and family members were infected, although some transmission may have occurred via events outside school. 

Another citation is from Singapore, where, despite the heroic measures of enhanced hygiene, staggered classes, temperature checks, and a week-long break away from school, there were still eight reported cases before the school was closed eleven days later. 

This set of clusters is just a small collection of anecdotes, but they may be instructive for considering the spectrum of scenarios that could play out in our public schools.

Studies about school-based COVID-19 spread are paused for now, but anecdotal evidence from other places where children gather may reveal what’s on the horizon when schools reopen.

Recent reports of skyrocketing infections at daycare facilities (Texas and Charlotte, NC, for example) and the summer camp outbreaks in Missouri and Arkansas do not bode well for North Carolina schools filled–even partly–with potential carriers of COVID-19.

In summary, the available data for COVID-19 spread in schools does not present an open-and-shut case of guaranteed low risk for students and teachers. Instead, a more thorough reading of each case reveals there’s likely to be enormous variability in the way COVID-19 disease spreads within educational facilities, depending on any number of physical, social, and biological factors – factors we do not understand and therefore can’t predict with any degree of certainty. 

As Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told members of Congress, “We don’t really know, exactly, what the efficiency of spread is” among children. 

Public school stakeholders need to be aware of the pitfalls associated with these studies as they draw conclusions from the COVID-19 information supplied by NCDHHS. Policy decisions affecting the health and well-being of school children should not be based on flawed reasoning and studies that don’t accurately model the current patterns of infection in this rapidly evolving crisis.

Nan Fulcher earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina, specializing in infectious disease research. She’s involved in science and outdoor education programming for children and does freelance graphic design.