Health, education experts offer advice on how to reopen schools safely

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- If any one thing is for certain it's that this virus is showing no signs of ditching class--literally. Since students began their return to in-person learning on campuses across the state, student and staff cases of COVID-19 have made headlines.

"I think what we've seen from the data is that schools are a safer environment on a public health perspective in hybrid instruction than being in the community," said Duke pediatrician Dr. Danny Benjamin.

Benjamin, along with school administrators, teachers, and other health professionals from local and state levels make up the ABC Science Collaborative. The goal of the group is to consult with school leadership and districts on how to safely reopen schools during this unprecedented pandemic for so many.

"We have no authority. We have no decision-making ability. Nor should we," said Dr. Benjamin. "All we can give is one part of the equation. Normally we wouldn't be invited to the table in any way shape or form. It's just we have a unique area of expertise that happens to be relevant during this brief period of time."

In a Wake County Public School System board meeting on November 10, Benjamin addressed WCPSS leadership on data findings relevant to school openings.

"Wake County can expect to see one case (of COVID) per week, per school," he told the board.

In a November 11 interview with ABC11, Benjamin said, "Think of school only as a place for children and adults to have a babysitting service to avoid COVID-19. You're still better off in school than you are in the communities of North Carolina because the secondary transmission within school infection is very low."

According to the most recent key metrics from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services at the time of this writing, 314,207 COVID-19 cases have been reported statewide. Unfortunately, there have been 4,814 deaths in the state.

"This thing can go sideways in a hurry if you don't have a good plan and you don't adhere to it," said Benjamin. "And that's clearly evidenced by what happened in Georgia and is happening in rural Utah right now."

He said some districts listen to what the collaborative has to offer, but other districts around the state ignore the science behind the numbers.

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"My overarching advice (for districts) is to make decisions based on how well you are doing in schools and on your plan," Benjamin said. "Other school districts don't want to take into account much of anything. So it's really voluntary for school districts to pick up or incorporate anything we have to say."

But he did say schools should keep an eye on their case counts, especially those with in-person learning.

"If they're having a lot of secondary transmissions then they really need to think hard on do we advance or maybe do we have fewer students in school," said Benjamin.
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