It comes after encouragement from state leaders during a press conference last week, in which they cited the ABC Collaborative study compiled by researchers at Duke and UNC, which reviewed data from eleven districts that took part in hybrid instruction at the beginning of the year. Those districts required maintaining six feet of social distancing, masking, hand washing, daily symptom monitoring and temperature checks. Doctors found zero cases of student to staff spread, and "extremely limited within-school secondary transmission" of COVID-19.
"There's not a medical reason to stay out of Plan B," Dr. Daniel Benjamin, a Duke School of Medicine Professor Pediatrics and the lead author of the report, told ABC11 in January.
However, in sharing reopening plans, the state acknowledged they are differing from the requirements in the study for elementary students.
"For elementary school because of the different nature the way this virus spreads in younger children, we are allowing folks to go back without maintaining that six feet, and to do things as small as three feet," said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.
Kristin Beller, the President of Wake NCAE, expressed concern over this change.
"Do we do it safe, which is undoubtedly six feet of distancing? Or do we do what's convenient, which is full in-person instruction? And there shouldn't be an either-or. We either need to resource what's safe, or if we're sending students and staff back into conditions that are full in-person instruction, acknowledge that those are not the safest conditions that we can and should be providing," said Beller.
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Bekah Brown, a former school teacher in Durham and Wake County, and the mother of two WCPSS students, said she will be continuing to keep her children home.
"We're in the middle of a pandemic, and if I don't have to send my kids back, I don't want to. I also think that exposing their teachers unnecessarily, I can do my part to not do that," Brown said.
Citing her previous personal experience as a teacher, as well as conversations with current teachers, Brown shared other issues she had with the plans to return.
"You think about kindergarten through third grade, through no fault of their own, they're social beings. They like to be around each other, social distancing of six feet is difficult to maintain. Keeping masks on is difficult to maintain. Ventilation is a concern in a classroom," Brown said.
While Brown agreed with the merits of in-person instruction, she believes socialization gains of returning to in-person will be limited by rules in place to enhance safety.
"I taught kindergarten for a while, and I think that kids often do learn better in classrooms, but we're in the middle of a pandemic. And you think about the social-emotional implications of sending a child back to school, wearing a mask, not being allowed to talk to their friends or even interact with them in the same way, which is the reason a lot of advocates are wanting kids back into schools. It's for the social and emotional connections, and I don't think it's going to be the same," said Brown.
Brown also cited staff and substitute teacher shortages, which are likely exacerbated in the midst of calls to vaccinate teachers prior to returning to the classroom. Wednesday, Governor Cooper announced Priority Group 3, which includes teachers amongst other frontline essential workers, will be eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine later this month.
Districts currently have power to make decisions over which reopening plan they move forward with, and other specific limitations. Dr. Cohen clarified that schools do not necessarily need to be in hybrid learning to maintain six feet of social distance and other safety protocols.
"In our middle and high school-aged students, it spreads closer to what it's like in adults, and so we wanted to make sure that we're doing the masks, doing the cleaning, and maintaining six feet of distance in our middle and high schools. That being said, six feet of distance does not require a school district necessarily be hybrid. It does require them to have that six feet of distance, but depending on the physical layout of the individual classrooms, the schools, the number of students who choose and opt for virtual (learning), that might not be hybrid for a middle school or high school to maintain that six feet of distance," said Dr. Cohen.
WCPSS Spring registration data as of January 7 showed 35,850 elementary (K-5) school students, 18,886 middle school students, and 28,349 students opted for in-person, compared to 33,826 elementary school students, 19,338 students and 23,686 students opted for virtual.
The ABC Collaborative study took part over nine weeks at the beginning of the school year, where metrics were better than they currently are and prior to the confirmed presence of the B.1.1.7 variant in the state.
"The data suggest the variants are slight mutations of what was circulating last year, but they're not mutating against masking and washing our hands. Those things still work," said Dr. Ibukun Akinboyo, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Duke's School of Medicine who also worked on the ABC Collaborative Study.
These decisions are occurring as state legislators are considering Senate Bill 37, which would require districts offer in-person instruction.