Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer
The Macon County School Board met for a special called meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 4, to discuss Senate Bill 37. This bill speaks to the in-person learning choices for students during the pandemic. During a press conference on Feb. 2, Governor Cooper and other state leaders urged school districts across the state to reopen for in-person instruction. A letter sent to school board members and superintendents said that since August, at least 90 of the state’s 115 school districts have safely provided in-person instruction for some or all their students. Even with the thousands of students and teachers attending school in-person across the state, NCDHHS has seen few COVID clusters in the public schools.
John deVille, Franklin High School history teacher, urged the board to take into consideration more recent data. He spoke about the ABC Science Collaborative program that pairs scientists and physicians with school and community leaders to help understand the most current and relevant information about COVID-19. The program helps school leaders make informed decisions about returning to school using data from their own communities.
DeVille pointed out that the data collected by ABC, which was shared with local school boards, was from data collected from Aug. 15 through Oct. 23, 2020. This was before a more virulent strain of COVID-19 was discovered and before the uptick in virus cases. DeVille felt that what the board of education members would cling to was this short paragraph from a pre-publication in Pediatrics, Office Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jan. 8, 2021, regarding Incidence and Secondary Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 Infections in Schools. It reads: Across the 11 school districts, 773 community-acquired SARS-CoV-2 infections were documented by molecular testing; however, there were only 32 adjudicated cases of secondary transmission across the 11 districts combined in 9 weeks of instruction. Six districts had 0 secondary infections, 2 had 1 case, and 3 had multiple cases. There were 6 cases of secondary transmission in the pre-K setting; 11 in elementary schools, 6 in middle schools, 5 in high schools, and 4 in K–12 schools. There were no cases of child-to-adult within-school transmission.
What deVille points out is the limitations of this study quoting a paragraph from the study, “Our study has limitations. Participation in the ABCs is voluntary and not every school district in NC participated in the ABCs or this study. Participation in the ABCs and voluntary submission of data may select for school districts that enforce adherence to preventative measures, emphasize transparency, and cooperate with peers; these characteristics are likely associated with greater adherence to masking, reduced secondary transmission, and lower risks to students. Adjudication of secondary transmission was by local health department staff in each district, with varying resource capabilities. While health department staff requested testing of contacts, testing could not be universally enforced because it is not required to return to school in N.C. Due to confidentiality concerns, we were not able to analyze incidence of child-to-child or adult-to-child transmission, nor could we determine the relative effectiveness of any specific school policies.”
“In other words I’m surprised they were able to find ‘32 adjudicated cases,’” said deVille. “I’m surprised they found any, given the limitations? When ABC says ‘resource capabilities,’ we’re obviously talking testing capacity. Here in Macon County we’ve totally stopped doing all contact tracing except for some half-hearted attempts at school — like ABC says, neither the local health departments nor school systems can compel testing. During the September/October data collection period for the ABC study, we had significant testing constraints here in Macon. Up to four days to get a testing appointment, and five days or more to get results back. I know other counties faced this also.
“I think to us, the headline should be, ‘We went looking for male cardinals in the woods, but we did so blindfolded most of the time. After a few weeks and hundreds of person hours in the woods, we were occasionally afforded the opportunity to peek underneath the blindfolds and we saw 32….which isn’t many….they’re probably going extinct.’”
Among other resources, deVille cited an article in the North Carolina Health News by Anne Blythe who quoted the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, “If Governor Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NCAE, said in a statement released Tuesday. “We encourage local school boards to continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions. 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.”
The question for the School Board to consider on Thursday morning, was how to get teachers vaccinated? The NCDHHS said teachers will be included in the next round of vaccinations. The group 2 phase currently underway includes any remaining health care workers, front-line employees, adults over 65 and adults with at least one chronic condition.
The School Board adjourned the meeting without making any new decisions regarding changing in-person learning as it stands now. Plan “A” is in-person for grades K-5; and plan “B” permits two days per week for grades 6-12 with virtual the remainder of the week; and fully virtual Plan “C” is offered for those 500 students still enrolled.