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Report Shows Minimal COVID Transmission Within N.C. Schools

A Wake County Public Schools bus.
A Wake County Public Schools bus.

A report published on Wednesday shows COVID-19 transmission within North Carolina schools is low and best mitigated by mask wearing.

The ABC Science Collaborative analysis led by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that about 1 in 2,800 K-12 students who were in school buildings became infected with COVID-19 during school. Of the 864,515 students and 160,549 staff members analyzed, 308 pupils and 55 employees acquired COVID-19 from school.

The data came from a review of 100 school districts and 14 charter schools that operated under the loosest reopening guidelines — Plan A — between March and June.

“North Carolina schools did an outstanding job preventing within-school transmission of COVID‐19,” the report says.

Roughly 1 in 127 students and 1 in 138 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during the four-month period analyzed. More than 95% of infected students and school workers got the virus from the community, not the school.

The report also found that while it was safe to participate in athletics this past year, the activities likely led to greater transmission than activities within the classroom. Students seated closer together in classrooms or on buses did not experience an increased risk of transmission.

Because less than 1% of the nearly 42,000 people who were quarantined due to their exposure tested positive for the virus, the researchers recommend the state consider eliminating quarantine procedures for pupils who are either vaccinated or appropriately masked when exposed to the virus.

“We don’t have to close schools again,” said a statement from Dr. Danny Benjamin, co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative. "We don’t have to have remote instruction. We’ve got tools that will keep children and adults safe in schools.”

Republicans have long championed a return to daily, in-person instruction.

But they are presently advancing a measure that would pave the way for districts to stop requiring mask wearing — a tool researchers view as the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within schools, particularly for youth under 12 who are not eligible for a vaccine.

The House approved the bill last week that would let local school leaders, not state officials, decide whether K-12 students and staff need to wear face coverings for the upcoming school year. Senators late Wednesday declined for now to accept the measure, which would have sent the bill to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's desk. Instead, there could be House-Senate negotiations on creating a final measure.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican, said the new report shows daily, in-person instruction is safe. She hopes it will motivate the state to allow districts to ease masking requirements.

“Knowing that school districts are entering the new school year with higher vaccination rates for adults gives me hope that we will see mask mandates removed for K-12 students in the fall,” Truitt said in a statement. “As a proponent for local control, I believe this should be a local decision.”

Cooper’s current executive order and guidance from state public health officials compel most everyone to wear face coverings indoors in public and private schools.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

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