Schools are not a big driver of COVID-19 cases

By Dr. Terry Stoops

Raleigh, NC – Early this month, officials from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) delivered their monthly COVID-19 update to the State Board of Education. The presentation (available here) included the usual catalog of data related to coronavirus metrics, including positive tests, cases, hospitalizations, and clusters.

two people sitting on wooden stairs
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Its most important contribution, however, was a statement by Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and chief medical officer, who reported that the state is “not seeing schools as a big driver of cases.” At the time of the presentation, DHHS reported that the state had 282,802 cases, but only 0.1% of those cases were from clusters in K-12 public and private schools. Last week, schools in North Carolina reported 390 total cluster-associated cases, 297 active cases, and no deaths. This week, the number climbed to 486 total cases but still no deaths.

But is North Carolina’s experience unique? Hardly. According to an October 29 article in Nature,

Data gathered worldwide are increasingly suggesting that schools are not hot spots for coronavirus infections. Despite fears, COVID-19 infections did not surge when schools and day-care centres reopened after pandemic lockdowns eased. And when outbreaks do occur, they mostly result in only a small number of people becoming ill.

That is not to say that children cannot contract COVID-19 or spread it to others. Rather, young children appear to be less likely than adults to contract or spread coronavirus. Researchers are not sure why. One hypothesis is that children are less likely to project infectious aerosols because they have smaller lungs. Others suggest that they are less likely to transmit the virus because they typically experience mild or no symptoms. Of course, mandated sanitation regimens and mitigation measures such as social distancing may also play a role.

Given that young children are the least vulnerable population, researchers argue that mitigation strategies should focus on children with preexisting conditions, teenagers, and adults. And North Carolina appeared to be successful in doing so. Of the 297 active cases reported last week, only 115 were school staff. Hopefully, students and educators will be the initial recipients of a very promising vaccine developed by Big Pharma.

Schools are finally beginning to reopen

The last four months have been a whirlwind for public school students and staff. On July 14, Cooper announced that public schools would have the choice of reopening under Plan B (stringent health and safety protocols with moderate social distancing), Plan C (remote learning), or a combination of the two. That gave school boards only around four weeks to formulate their mid-August school reopening plans, and roughly two-thirds selected Plan C for at least the opening weeks of the school year. On September 17, Gov. Cooper permitted districts to open elementary schools using Plan A (standard health and safety protocols with minimal social distancing) starting on October 5.

Most school boards announced plans to begin bringing young children back to school campuses in October and through the remainder of the calendar year. According to the exceptional database maintained by the NC School Boards Association, 19 districts enrolling over 315,000 students have closed all school buildings until the end of the first semester. This includes some of the largest school districts in the state: Alamance-Burlington Schools, Cumberland County Schools, Durham Public Schools, and the Public Schools of Robeson County. Many others have closed middle and high school buildings for the remainder of the first semester. Unfortunately, charter school data are not available.

Not a moment too soon

The urgency of resuming in-person instruction cannot be overstated. While adolescents’ sleep habits appeared to have improved, remote learning is often a poor substitute for face-to-face classroom instruction. Not only has it taken a toll on students’ mental health, learning losses exacerbated by remote learning are devastating and will be most severe among our most vulnerable student populations. Without widespread standardized testing, it’s difficult to know how harmful it has been for North Carolina students. If assessment results from Dallas are any indication, then the problem is even worse than initially thought.

Remote learning is often a poor substitute for face-to-face classroom instruction.

According to an evaluation report submitted to the Dallas Independent School District’s trustees, half of the student population lost ground in math due to COVID-19 disruptions. Around one-third fell behind in reading. Children in the early grades were hardest hit, as older students appeared better able to adapt to instructional changes. Moreover, children of color were much less likely to be projected to reach grade level on Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) math and reading tests. For example, while nearly 42% of DISD fourth-graders were expected to reach grade level in math, only 7.5% of Black and Hispanic children were expected to meet that mark. One trustee aptly called them “horrifying losses of learning.”

As I pointed out in a previous article, it’s not just about test scores. Learning losses of this magnitude will produce a lifetime of lower wages for the student, as much as $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars) according to a report by McKinsey and Company. As the economy absorbs lower-skilled and less productive workers into the economy, the United States will endure massive GDP losses. A recent international study estimated that learning loss equivalent to one-third of a school year might produce a total economic loss of $14.2 trillion in the United States alone.

I’m optimistic that the second half of the school year will be better than the first. Nevertheless, state education officials and school boards will need to work with state lawmakers to create research-based initiatives to offset learning losses. Failure to implement an effectual remediation plan is not an option.