Updated: The Wake school board voted 7-2 to keep all students out of school, and in remote learning, until February 15 at the earliest. 

Wake County’s school board meets this afternoon to vote on whether some students should return to the classroom next week following a pause on in-person instruction due to rising COVID numbers.

District Superintendent Cathy Moore recommended on Wednesday that elementary school students, and those in middle and high schools who are not attending the county’s Virtual Academy full-time, stay home until mid-February, at which point administrators in the district can reassess whether it’s safe for students to return to school.

At issue is a study from the ABC Science Collaborative—a group of Duke University researchers that has been advising North Carolina school districts during the pandemic—that collected data from 11 school districts in the state and found no cases of COVID-19 transmission from students to adults. Only 32 cases of COVID infection were found to have been acquired in schools out of a sample size of more than 90,000 students and staff.

Some parents and those who want students to return to school on January 20 cite the study to make the case that it’s safe for students to return to school.

But many school principals teachers, including the educators’ advocacy group Wake NCAE, which surveyed a group of Wake school system employees, say the study doesn’t account for several factors that make in-person instruction in Wake different from the districts included in the research.

For one, the study mainly looked at rural districts in North Carolina that are much less densely populated than Wake; the largest county included in the study had a population of 223,842, compared to Wake’s 1.1 million. Second, the study was conducted between August 15 and October 23, when rates of community spread were much lower than they are now. Third, the study only looked at schools that were in Plan B, where a third of the students were already learning remotely. Also, the study doesn’t account for asymptomatic spread and imperfect contract tracing.

“Our cohort study demonstrated that enforcing [COVID] mitigation policies such as masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene, resulted in minimal clusters of…infection and low rates of secondary transmission in schools, and did not cause a larger community infection burden,” the study concluded. “Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely if they develop and adhere to specific SARS-CoV-2 prevention policies.”

Some of the study’s limitations are outlined in the report itself, and several other studies find that schools do in fact contribute to community spread of COVID.

“At best, one could describe the research on ‘do schools contribute to the community spread’ as ‘mixed,’” said Kristopher Nordstrom, an education policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center, in an email to the INDY. “Some say yes, some say no (though having read the reports, I find the studies that say “yes” to be more persuasive.) Given the risks involved, it makes the most sense to ask for a higher degree of certainty before reopening schools.”

Local teachers’ groups share this view.

“It is reasonable for folks to have questions about the results of a study during a time when conditions were very different, and it is definitely not an extreme view to have concerns,” says Kristin Beller, the president of Wake NCAE.

Beller adds that she hopes the school board will vote in a way that will create “a stable learning environment” for Wake’s students.

“Remote learning would be stable because we don’t need to worry about staff being sick or having enough staff to cover classes,” Beller says. “In-person learning right now creates instability. Remote learning would allow for us to prepare for a swift vaccine rollout and continue stability when we continue in-person learning, without absences and quarantine. It will give some sense of a traditional school year, and a sense of closure for seniors and fifth graders and eighth graders.”

“Vaccines are here, and hospitals are at capacity,” adds Nordstrom. “There is no reason to rush this decision right now. The research is clear that bars and restaurants are more likely than schools to contribute to community spread. In an ideal world, we’d shut down other areas of our economy and pay people to stay home before we shut down schools. But since nobody will do that, and there are existing ways to pay teachers and students to stay home, it makes sense to continue.”

Watch the school board meeting at 3:30 here.

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

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