N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry and State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Tilson gave updates to the State Board of Education on Feb. 4 with a presentation that underscored the need for K-12 students to return to the classroom.
Earlier this week, Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said that the state’s guidance had been updated to encourage districts to return all students back to full-time in-person learning.
According to the changes in the Strong Schools Toolkit, K-5 students should return for in-person instruction “five days per week to the fullest extent possible while following all public health protocols in the Toolkit (Plan A).” Middle school through high school should also return to in-person five days a week but should include the “Six Feet Social Distancing (Plan B).”
Perry and Tilson both indicated that transmission in schools was low despite high rates of community transmission when “strong preventive measures are in place.”
“With prevention measures in place, increasing evidence suggests low rates of COVID-19 transmission in primary and secondary school settings even with high rates of community transmission,” the NCDHHS presentation reads.
Tilson highlighted academic loss and mental health harm to children who have been kept in remote instruction. She also detailed examples of ongoing research, including a North Carolina-based study conducted last fall showing no child-to-adult transmission in schools that were open for instruction.
“No one study is perfect, we are learning every day,” Tilson said.
On the topic of vaccinations for school employees and teachers, Perry referred to remarks made by the new director of the CDC.
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely. Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on Feb. 3.
Teachers unions nationally have campaigned to keep schools closed and have demanded educators be moved to the front of vaccination groups before agreeing to return to the classroom. In North Carolina, the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) made a similar demand. The NCAE is an affiliate of the National Education Association, one of two of the nation’s largest educator unions.
“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,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “In the meantime, we encourage local school boards to continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions.”
Kelly and the NCAE also announced they would be conducting a statewide “We Heart Public Schools” tour. Kelly and NCAE Vice President Bryan Proffitt plan to tour the state in an RV over the next five months, hitting “100 counties. 2500+ schools.” Additionally, a flier bills the event as a listening tour that will include music by “DJ Whole Wheat, NCAE swag, giveaways & more!”