Despite January being the deadliest month since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina officials say it’s safe and important to send students back to schools. 

“We know school is important for reasons beyond academic instruction,” Governor Roy Cooper said in a press statement. “School is where students learn social skills, get reliable meals, and find their voices. Research done right here in North Carolina tells us that in-person learning is working and that students can be in classrooms safely with the right safety protocols in place.”

State Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen echoed Cooper’s safety claims, as did N.C. Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis. The group recommends that elementary school students transition to full in-person learning as much as possible, and that middle and high school students do the same—just with more social distancing.

Children make up very few COVID-19 cases in the state: about 11 percent of last week’s cases were among people under 18. Two children in North Carolina died last week from COVID-19 complications. 

The data makes it seem unlikely that children contract COVID-19 at school: out of 90 school districts with in-person learning components and thousands of students and teachers, only 51 clusters and 1,160 of more than 71,000 cases in school-aged children (and an unknown number of educators) are currently traced to school systems.

Additionally, caretakers worry that their children who struggle with one-size-fits-all learning, like those with learning disabilities or who live in non-English-speaking households, are falling behind their peers. Others worry that child abuse is underreported because of remote learning since reports decreased in 2020 despite ongoing stressors. Food insecurity and mental health are also adding to the reopening discussion.

“Learning loss resulting from COVID has the potential to be a generational hurdle, but the data we have seen shows us that schools can reopen safely if they adhere to COVID prevention policies,” Truitt said in a statement. “For many schools, the logistics of returning to in-person instruction five days per week will be a challenge, but this is absolutely a challenge we must face head-on so that all students have a chance to fulfill their potential.”

However, students aren’t the only ones in school buildings—teachers, administration, janitors, and cafeteria workers are also confined to school buildings.

The North Carolina Association of Educators says that the best way to ensure schools reopen is to prioritize school staff in vaccinations. In a response to Cooper’s press conference, NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly asked the governor to make sure the state’s public teachers were all vaccinated by the end of February. Currently, they are in the next group to get vaccinated, although it’s not clear when they’ll be able to schedule appointments.

Cooper and Cohen say research supports the possibility of safely reopening without a vaccine. NCAE says social distancing enforcement is also an issue, and school systems should make their own decisions about what’s best.

“Particularly in light of the emerging and increasingly virulent strains of COVID, it is more critical than ever to have a flexible approach that can be adapted to whatever situation next emerges,” Kelly said in a statement.

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