How can North Carolina schools safely reopen?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As North Carolina schools have started to move towards reopening, they have to consider how to keep students safe.

Duke researchers know it will be almost impossible to keep COVID-19 case counts in schools at zero. However, they think safety measures the public is already used to will be key.

“Schools open, schools closed, unfortunately people are getting infected,” said Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University.

Zimmerman is one of the researchers who published a study supporting reopening schools. That study found no difference in viral spread between schools located with high or low spread communities.

“We know that cases are going to come into the building,” Zimmerman said.

Even with fast spreading variants present, Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke, said it’s safe to open as long as people continue to follow safety measures proven to work.

“[The varients] are not mutating against masking and washing your hands. Those things still work,” said Akinboyo.

Reducing risk is the goal.

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“Can we put them in an environment where guidance and rules are in place to help prevent transmission at really high rates,” Zimmerman said.

Mitigating strategies like social distancing, however, may be a challenge for schools already overcrowded.

“We need to have some strategies in place for what that’s going to look like. Do we even have the infrastructure to make it possible for that distance between students and staff,” said Kristen Stephens a Duke associate professor of education.

Stephens said overcoming emotional concerns from teachers may be a steeper climb.

“The fear is real so I think the school districts need to look at making accommodations and they certainly can,” she said.

Pairing students who choose to stay virtual with teachers who want to stay virtual could an option.

In the meantime- schools, teachers and families wait to see how re-openings play out.

Catching students up

Studies have emerged showing some students have regressed in basic skills since the start of the pandemic.

A research-based nonprofit, Northwest Evaluation Association, found students in third to eighth performed 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math than students in the previous school year.

Compared to fall 2019, student performance this fall was similar in reading however.

Not enough studies are completed at this point to determine how or if North Carolina students’ performance has changed.

Stephens said the answer to bringing students back up to speed is not hammering them with more work.

“What typically happens when you do that is that it’s the ‘drill and kill’. Children are uninspired. I’d like to see us get kids really excited about being together and learning together,” said Stephens.

She said teachers are having trouble engaging their students right now. She would like to see a focus on engaging students in ways that excite them.

“I don’t think if we approached it from a remediation, we got to get you up to speed, and drill and kill and test, that we are going to inspire students to want to join us on the learning journey,” she said.

CDC re-opening guidelines

The CDC was expected to release updated guidance for operating schools during the pandemic but at the end of the week.

Right now, they recommended schools come up with a plan for the following:

  1. Promoting behaviors that reduce COVID-19’s spread
  2. Maintaining healthy environments
  3. Maintaining healthy operations
  4. Preparing for when someone gets sick

The CDC recommended schools work with state and local health officials on whether and how to implement each of these considerations. They said plans should be guided by “what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of each community”.

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