Nearly 350,000 young K-12 public school students in North Carolina will be distance learning this fall with no in-person option. School boards have made the tough call that school cannot be done safely given current resources and North Carolina’s far from under control COVID-19 rates.

Durham, Wake, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school districts will be virtual for at least the first quarter, yet, Triangle area colleges are gearing up to bring back tens of thousands of students to our communities for in-person classes and dorm living starting in early August.

As a part of a two working parent household, with a five year-old enrolled in Durham Public Schools, there are few words that fill me with more daily dread right now than “virtual kindergarten.” Taking on virtual learning is a serious personal, financial and educational sacrifice for my family.

But we understand why we have to make it—to keep ourselves, our teachers, and our neighbors safe and to help slow the spread of COVID-19. As parents of young children are asked to individually shoulder huge burdens for the greater good of our community and state, why are universities not willing to do their part to slow the spread by moving fully online, too?

Public school is critical infrastructure that many of the adults who make colleges run rely on:  Professors, school staff, custodians, cafeteria workers, and security guards need school to keep their families functioning and provide a safe, educational environment while they work. No public school district in the Triangle has put forward any real plan to support working parents during the school closures or found a way to provide safety and security to our most vulnerable kids while school is closed.

Parents of  K-12 children who work for these institutions and in the affiliated economies must fend for themselves for their own kids’ childcare and education, while being largely expected to carry on professionally as if everything is “back to normal.” While reopening colleges could provide a short-lived economic boost, our local economies cannot fully recover until the pandemic is under control enough that we can resume an in-person school option for our public school kids.

Triangle school boards have all cited the state and region’s current record-breaking COVID rates as a big factor for transitioning to virtual learning. Bringing back tens of thousands of college students to our area will only spike our rates, potentially creating hotspots and forcing young students to stay home indefinitely.

The fastest growing group for COVID infections in North Carolina right now is among those 18-49. And while mask wearing and social distancing will be required in college classrooms, UNC and NC State are planning for full capacity dorms, despite new research that suggests the virus may be transmitted in the air through ventilation systems more than previously thought. Typical student life such as participating in sports and greek life socializing has already caused large cluster outbreaks both at UNC and at colleges across the country, despite the fact most students haven’t even returned yet to campuses. While young adults are far less likely to die or suffer serious side effects from COVID-19 than older adults, the same cannot be said for all who live and work in the communities of these colleges.

In Durham, over 60% of public school kids receive free or reduced lunch. And while Duke has an ambitious plan to test all students upon arrival, the college does not exist in a vacuum, and this plan is hardly foolproof in preventing outbreaks of COVID-19 that could spread from students to the grocery store workers, Lyft drivers, housekeepers, and restaurant employees who work in the area, and whose own kids aren’t able to attend public school while they are at work serving Duke students. 

While Universities are promising fast test results and dedicated dorms for ill students to quarantine and recover, the average North Carolinian is currently facing up to a week to get their test results back, which makes controlling spread and contact tracing far less effective.

We all wish school could resume as usual, but most college instruction is the easiest of all education to do well online. This is not true for young students, who are at serious risk of learning loss, along with increased risk of poverty, hunger and child abuse the longer K-12 school cannot return in-person. As public school parents, our message should be crystal clear: no in-person college classes until it’s safe for our kids to return to in-person public school. Universities have an important symbiotic relationship with our Triangle communities, and the most crucial way they can be part of the solution we need right now is to use their resources and leadership to help North Carolina get this virus under control.

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist (which UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz is) to see packing the dorms and bringing back students for in-person classes will do the opposite—and will have a long term cost to our youngest, most vulnerable kids and hard-working families.

 Katherine Goldstein is a journalist, Durham Public School parent, and the creator and host of The Double Shift Podcast

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