Sixty-one percent of North Carolina counties have COVID-19 transmission that is too high for in-person learning at all grade levels, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The ABC11 I-team compared the guidelines to the latest COVID-19 metrics in North Carolina and found only two counties qualify for K-12 schools to fully reopen for in-person teaching.
This finding contradicts with state lawmakers' announcement on Wednesday regarding a bill that will fully reopen public elementary schools for in-person learning.
"People are getting tired and politicians are ready to try to normalize things by saying we're ready for fully school instruction and I think we need to really, really caution and take care of our people because we don't want higher community transmission because schools are reopening," said Natalie Beyer, a Durham Public Schools board member and a member of Public Schools of North Carolina.
The CDC guidance released at the end of February recommends counties consider the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the last week and percent positivity of COVID-19 tests.
Based on the guidance:
Many counties (61) including Wake County and Cumberland County fall in the third category because of the high number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the last week. Under this category, in-person learning is only recommended for elementary school students and not all at once.
Only schools in Orange and Polk counties meet the CDC requirements for allowing full in-person instruction for all grades.
"Those maps are really concerning," Beyer said. "I mean they have shown that North Carolina isn't ready for full in-person instruction yet. I know we want to be."
Durham County falls in the second tier where the CDC gives the OK for hybrid learning for all grade levels. Durham Public Schools voted last month to allow K-12 students to return to a hybrid model.
Lawmaker's announcement on Wednesday means DPS and other districts may have to change course again this semester.
"I'm alarmed," Beyer said of the push to fully reopen elementary schools. "I'm concerned."
On Thursday evening, Gov. Roy Cooper signed the school-reopening bill into law.
The guidance does come with exceptions including stating that if middle and high schools are already open and fall into the high transmission tier they can stay open if they follow strict mitigation efforts.
The CDC advises, regardless of community transmission, that all reopening plans include masks, physical distancing, handwashing, proper cleaning of facilities and contact tracing.
These guidelines come as educators and lawmakers across North Carolina struggle to figure out how best to get students back in the classrooms.
"The CDC are guidelines, which that's just what they are, they're guidelines, it's not federal law, it's not state law," explained Keith Poston, president of WakeEd Partnership.
Over the last year, school districts have had to weigh keeping students and teachers safe while ensuring adequate education for students.
"I think you have to pick a lane. In some ways you have to decide where and what you are going to rely on," Poston said of educators choosing which guidelines to follow and how strictly.
More studies have come out suggesting young children are less susceptible to COVID-19 and may be less infectious. This research comes at the same time more data is released about the increase in students falling behind academically.
"When we look at our own Orange County Schools data and looking at our schools' literacy growth from last March to midyear this year, and especially our early grades, in particular, it was almost like we lost the whole year," said Dr. Kathleen A. Dawson, the deputy superintendent at Orange County Schools.
Orange County Schools welcomed back all students this week under a hybrid model of in-person learning, known in North Carolina as plan 'B'.
"Just in the short time that students have been back, students have been noticing the difference, families have been noticing and our teachers," Dawson explained.
The county is one of the few with low enough COVID-19 transmission to qualify for full in-person return based on CDC guidance.
"The data and the science is saying that it is much safer than where we've been and so we will continue to strive to keep our students and our staff safe but we are being mindful that we still do have staff and families who are still hesitant," Dawson said.
Earlier this week the CDC stated reopening schools needs to be prioritized over nonessential businesses and activities.
Still, the decision of how and when to reopen hasn't come easy.
"My experience working with these leaders is they care so much about what they are doing and they want to get it right and they certainly want to make sure their teachers are safe and they feel safe," Poston said.