On Wednesday, Governor Cooper and NC DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced the state would begin vaccinating frontline workers on February 24. Crucially, only K-12 educators, school support staff, and other childcare workers will be eligible for the vaccine initially. 

Educators’ advocacy groups, including the NC Association of Educators, the largest education advocacy organization for public school employees in the state, praised the administration’s decision.

“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, and today’s announcement from Governor Cooper is an important step forward in making that a possibility,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the NCAE, in a statement. “By giving all educators … and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely.”

Walker Kelly’s statement goes on to describe Senate Bill 37 as “unnecessary. “

“[The bill] would undermine the return to in-person instruction by restricting the decision-making of local school boards,” the statement continues. “When it comes to these local decisions, a one-size-fits-all approach fails almost every time.”

The NCAE has been critical of a study from last fall, completed by the ABC Science Collaborative, that studied COVID transmission in face-to-face learning models across 11 North Carolina school districts and comprising about 90,000 students and staff. 

The study, which identified 773 community cases of COVID that were brought into schools, found low rates of secondary COVID transmission–32 cases to be precise–in the schools with mitigation measures (masking, hand-washing, six-foot social distancing) in place. 

“We know the mitigation strategies work…and schools are really good at enforcing these safety measures,” said Kanecia Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University who co-chaired the study, during a virtual panel discussion about the challenges facing K-12 educators in the pandemic. It’s educators’ dedication to enforcing the guidelines that has made returning to in-person instruction successful, she added.

“[Teachers] are all very eager to return to school,” said Kristen Stephens, an education professor at Duke who also sat on the panel. “They prefer to see their students in person, they miss seeing them and they know the classroom, in the traditional sense, is the best place for students to be.”

Stephens said teachers she has spoken to have concerns over instruction rather than COVID mitigation–juggling teaching one set of students in person and a whole other set remotely, for instance. 

“We have approached this problem from a binary: either students are in school, or they are attending class virtually,” Stephens said. “Now, there is a mixture of the two, and the models being used vary dramatically, so the concern is what does instruction look like? How do I need to plan based on the model my particular school or district is using?”

The panelists agreed that surveillance testing could be a mitigation strategy for schools when they reopen to in-person instruction and that many teachers and staff will be pleased to receive a vaccine before returning to the classroom. 

But most crucial, Zimmerman and Stephens say, will be having the resources to ensure schools can comply with basic mitigation strategies, such as running water and soap for hand-washing, and the space and infrastructure to socially distance. 

That’s a responsibility that lies largely with state policymakers, especially if they are going to mandate all schools reopen for in-person instruction as a Senate bill moving swiftly through the legislature is proposing. 

“That is key,” said Zimmerman. “We know for many years schools have been underfunded across the board, in some cases, particularly, in communities of color. Fortunately, some of the things like handwashing and masking don’t cost an exorbitant amount of money. Space will be important. There are some schools now without running hot water. But we’re not talking about entire overhauls to allow people to go to school safely.”

Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to jporter@indyweek.com

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