Expert says uptick in COVID-19 transmission in schools was expected due to Delta variant

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The Wake County Public School System is reporting 258 positive COVID-19 cases and an additional 84 pending cases in the first week of school for students on a traditional calendar. The district has more than 161,000 students.

Duke University's Dr. Danny Benjamin is co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative.

The Collaborative does not give advice or recommendations to the district but provides information related to COVID-19 transmission in schools. The district can then use that to guide its decisions.

Dr. Benjamin said the number of cases in Wake County schools is entirely predictable.

"With the ancestral variant, we knew all of last year that the within school transmission rate would be about 1%, and we saw that in a series of studies that we did throughout North Carolina, including early summer school," Dr. Benjamin said. "Now, the Delta variant is about four times, three times, more transmissible than the ancestral or original COVID variant, from a year ago. So we anticipate that in the fall, the within school transmission will be a little bit higher than 1%."

Dr. Benjamin says they're evaluating data related to Wake County schools and Delta and will present it to the district.

"In general, it's quite good news," Dr. Benjamin said. "School districts can safely offer education, despite the Delta variant, if they have universal masking."

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"North Carolina schools are going to do a good job this fall because we have 90% of children in traditional K through 12 education under a mask mandate, so that's going to help North Carolina a lot," Dr. Benjamin said.

Renee Sekel, of Cary, has three children who go to Wake County schools. Every day, she worries if she made the right decision sending them back to in-person instruction.

"I'm seeing more and more reports of children hospitalized and I feel like it's a risk every time I put them on a school bus," Sekel said.

She said she feels OK about her vaccinated children but is concerned for her youngest 10-year-old child.

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"His teachers are doing their best, the school seems to be trying its best, but it's just, the situation itself is not particularly safe," Sekel said.

For now, Sekel is glad the schools are not reporting many cases.

"I feel like at least right now, the school environment seems to be holding us safe."

Athens Drive High and Sanderson High in Raleigh and Knightdale High have reported COVID-19 clusters on their football teams.

The district is considering taking measures, such as having athletes mask up or test regularly.

ABC11 asked Dr. Benjamin his prediction's on this school year with the Delta variant.

"The first prediction that we had was that school districts that go with a voluntary masking policy are going to be able to staff their buildings for a week or two and that has consistently been proven to be the case," Dr. Benjamin said. "The second thing that we anticipate is that lunch, recess, but especially athletics are going to be a real challenge for these school districts. That's why those areas, especially around lunch is something that we're emphasizing here late August or early September. We also anticipate problems with athletics, and then downstream, I think we'll have problems with pandemic fatigue, and people not wanting to wear masking quite as much, which is what why we have the monitoring plan."
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