By Melba Newsome

Erin Montgomery is the mom of a preschooler and a second grader and follows any and all news about day care closures and school reopenings with keen interest. She watched as the number of coronavirus cases in Mecklenburg County set new records almost daily in recent weeks and more children were diagnosed with the coronavirus. She and her husband, Adam, were increasingly unsettled about the worrying trends and decided to pull 4-year-old Lucy out of day care a few weeks ago.

“I just didn’t want her there anymore,” said Montgomery.

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Her decision typifies the dilemma facing many Mecklenburg parents as local infection numbers are going in the wrong direction at breakneck speed. As of July 16, Mecklenburg had 15,360 cases of the virus and 164 coronavirus-related deaths. According to county health officials, the average rate of those testing positive for COVID-19 is 11.4 percent.

As President Donald Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos pressure schools nationwide to reopen, evidence continues to show that children are not immune from contracting and/or transmitting the virus.

“The vast majority of kids will have mild disease but we are going to have some kids that have this MIS-C,” said Amina Ahmed, an epidemiologist at Levine Children’s Hospital. MIS-C is the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome that some children have presented with in addition to a positive COVID-19 case. In some cases, MIS-C can be serious.

“The scientific evidence available today shows that children are less likely to be infected with COVID-19 and children get less severe illness than adults,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen “Importantly, children who have COVID-19 are also less likely to spread it to others. Even in school or group settings, this is particularly evident in younger, elementary-aged children.”

Transmission does occur, though

Despite reassurances, since the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services began reporting coronavirus clusters on its website, seven schools and day care facilities near the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area have reported COVID-19 clusters, defined as a group of five or more cases within a 14-day period in a school setting.

Because of the setting in which they occur, it is harder to determine if a cluster began and spread within the facility, or from the community.

After six children were confirmed to have COVID-19 cases, KinderCare in South Charlotte posted a message on its website asking parents to find other care for their children because the South Charlotte facility was closing temporarily “in the best interest of global health.”

“As soon as we learned of the positive diagnoses at our Providence Road KinderCare center, we partnered with the local Health Department,” the facility said in a news release. “Our center is currently closed for 14 days. We’re using that time to retrain our staff on our health and safety protocols to ensure we’re delivering against the highest standards possible.”

KinderCare is just one of several such clusters in the Charlotte area.

Three staff members and two children tested positive for COVID-19 at Primrose School of Lake Norman in Iredell County; at Smart Kids #3 Child Care Center, one of eight Smart Kid child development centers in the Charlotte area, one staff member and five children tested positive for the virus; Heaven’s Angels Childcare Facility in East Charlotte had 14 confirmed cases consisting of three staff members and 11 children; six staff members tested positive at East Union Middle School in Union County; and North Iredell High School in Olin reported a cluster of five cases among staff members.

Waiting for school plan 

Montgomery has been on tenterhooks for weeks waiting for Gov. Roy Cooper’s school plan that would provide more clarity for 7-year-old Minnie. On July 14, Cooper announced that North Carolina schools will reopen on schedule under “Plan B,” which allows both in-person and remote learning.

In what the governor called “a measured and balanced approach,” students will be able to participate in a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Some students may have rotating schedules, while others may not come to campus at all.

“We also looked at data from around the world, indicating that schools are a lower transmission setting, and have not seemed to play a major role in the spread of COVID-19,” Cohen said.

Nonetheless, school districts will have the latitude to determine their own plans for how children will continue their learning and how often they will attend in-person classes. However, all districts must put in place important safety precautions when schools do reopen.

Face coverings will be required for every teacher, staff member and student in kindergarten through 12th grade. The number of people in the building will be limited to ensure social distancing. Protocols will also include symptom screenings, isolation and thorough cleanings daily. Each district will have the flexibility to approve the plan that works best for them.

Despite the challenges of home schooling, this plan does little to reassure Montgomery that sending her daughters back to classrooms with two dozen other children is a prudent decision.

“I feel very conflicted about schools reopening,” she says. “I can’t imagine how schools can keep students and teachers safe. I’ve seen kids social distance and wearing masks. It just doesn’t work. We thought about having Minnie take a gap year, although that would be kind of unusual for a second grader!”

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Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...