Dr. Betsey Tilson says there's a 'bright spot' in new data that gives her hope about children returning to school

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- North Carolina's State Health Director on Thursday expressed hope and optimism about students going back to school, even as the COVID-19 cases, the percentage of positive cases, and hospitalizations continue to rise.

"We know that schools are fundamentally important to our children, to our families, to our societies and to our families," Dr. Betsey Tilson told ABC11 in a one-on-one interview. "With flu in past pandemics, children seem to be that reservoir of the virus and they seem to be where the virus got spread. We are not seeing that with COVID-19."

Tilson, who completed a residency in pediatrics, added that new studies from around the world are highlighting children's apparent resistance to the respiratory illness - something she calls a "bright spot" amidst the pandemic.

"Children are less likely to have an infection, less likely to get an infection even if they have the same exposure as adults, less likely to spread the infection," the doctor said. "We also have studies from other countries that when they shut down schools that it didn't contribute much to slowing the spread. Now we've seen in other countries with open schools they haven't had a change in trends when schools are open."

Her optimism came the day after Gov. Roy Cooper made it clear that one of his main priorities is to reopen schools with in-person instruction in August but did not issue a statewide directive on how schools should open.

Wake County Public Schools reopening planning involves possibility of three-week rotations for students

The governor instead vowed to allow the state's 115 school districts to take extra time to ensure their teachers and staff are prepared for each of the three potential scenarios as spelled out in StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which was updated on June 30.

According to officials, this includes districts stocking up on thermometers and personal protective equipment (PPE), installing fiber or plexiglass barriers where applicable, and marking six feet spacing for seating and other areas to facilitate the appropriate social distancing.

"There are risks and benefits across all the scenarios and so I wouldn't say we're not getting buy-in but where a lot of work has to happen and why we didn't make a decision yesterday was to work through all those operational plans so we can think through those plans to reduce the risk."

Durham Public Schools plans to send K-8 students back for in-person instruction, keep high school students home

Schools have been closed for in-person instruction since March 14 and the new academic year for traditional schools is only a few weeks away.

District administrators and school boards are required to create the following three plans which spell out what's mandated and what's recommended regarding social distancing and minimizing exposure; face coverings; protecting vulnerable populations; cleaning and hygiene; monitoring for symptoms; handling suspected, presumptive, and confirmed COVID-19 cases; communication and combating misinformation; water and ventilation systems; transportation; and coping and resilience.

Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing Will be implemented assuming state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or move in a positive direction. All requirements in the guidance apply to Plan A.

Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing Will be required if state COVID-19 metrics worsen and it is determined additional restrictions are necessary. All requirements in the guidance apply, with additional requirements in the Social Distancing and Minimizing Exposure and Transportation sections.

Plan C: Remote Learning Only Will be implemented only if state COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require suspension of in-person instruction and the implementation of remote learning for all students, based on the remote learning planes required by Session Law 2020-3. The requirements listed in the guidance would not apply, as students and staff would not be gathering in groups on school grounds.

School districts may choose to implement a more restrictive plan but may not choose to implement a less restrictive plan than established by NCDHHS, NCSBE and NCDPI.

Asked about a regional approach to reopening schools, Tilson said the current trends show the new coronavirus is a statewide issue.

"When we look at our trends across the state, we don't have a clear picture of what region or the other," the doctor said. "We also know in North Carolina people move around the state a lot."

Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina's Secretary of Health and Human Services, has said North Carolina is seeing a "slow but steady increase" compared to states that now serve as cautionary tales for how things can change quickly.

Tilson on Thursday echoed that sentiment while also expressing concern about the July 4th holiday.

"I am worried that people will go out, will go to beaches, will congregate and will have more spread of the virus. The less we can spread the virus now then the more likely it is we get kids back to school."
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