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By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper and state education leaders are pushing school districts across the state to open classrooms for students, using two studies to argue that it’s safe to do so.

On Tuesday, Catherine Truitt, the state superintendent of public instruction, Eric Davis, chairman of the State Board of Education, joined Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, during a briefing with reporters.

Eleven months have passed since North Carolina abruptly closed all schools on March 19 as the state’s fight against COVID-19 was just beginning.

“Protecting public health has been the top priority since the start of this pandemic,” Cooper said. “We’ve taken decisive action to put strong safety protocols in place, including in our schools. When the pandemic first hit in March, we moved to remote instruction to keep people safe from this virus that we knew little about.”

Science and public health experts provided input to Cooper and his team to ensure that students could continue to learn as COVID-19 spread across the state.

Decisions about what happened in each of the state’s 115 school districts were left to local school boards. Ninety of the state’s 115 school districts are providing some in-person instruction for some or all of the state’s estimated 1.6 million school children.

“We’ve learned much more about this virus,” Cooper said. “Now it’s time to get our children back in the classroom.”

To get the other 25 districts to do the same, Cooper and others held up studies done by the ABC Science Collaborative and another from scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whose findings were published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.

Each study used data collected over nine weeks from 11 school districts in North Carolina that opened in the fall for in-person instruction. The researchers concluded that with proper safety protocols, such as social distancing, mask-wearing, checking temperatures at the door, there is little evidence of COVID-19 transmission in the schools.

The state updated its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) on Tuesday to encourage districts across the state to open elementary and middle schools for in-person instruction five days per week to the fullest extent possible.

Teachers have pushed back against the guidance, saying that many would love to get back into classrooms with their students but only after they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We know school is important for reasons beyond academic instruction. School is where children learn social skills, get reliable meals and find their voices,” Cooper said. “Teachers and staff play an important role in keeping students safe by identifying cases of abuse, hunger, homelessness and other challenges that students face outside of school.”

The governor’s new guidance is not a statewide mandate.

Cooper said he preferred to leave the ultimate decisions up to local school boards that have a better sense of how many employees they would have, how many parents are willing to send their children back to classrooms and how much space they have to properly space out students and teachers.

The announcement comes the day after Republican legislators introduced a bill that would take away that flexibility and force all districts to have in-person classes with online options available to children and teachers at risk.

Lobbying for vaccines

“For many schools, the logistics of returning to in-person instruction five days per week will be a challenge, but this is absolutely a challenge we must face head-on so that all students have a chance to fulfill their potential,” Truitt said. “With strong prevention measures in place, and the scientific research to back them, now is the time to act. North Carolina’s students cannot lose any more time.”

As the state continues to prioritize people who are 65 and older and health care workers as those eligible for vaccines, teachers are asking why they cannot be included.

“If Governor Cooper feels so strongly about resuming in-person instruction quickly, then he should support educators and immediately bring the full weight of his office to bear to get all educators vaccinated by the end of this month, just as 25 other states have been able to do,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement released Tuesday.

“In the meantime, we encourage local school boards to continue to make decisions that protect students and educators based on local conditions. Particularly in light of the emerging and increasingly virulent strains of COVID, it is more critical than ever to have a flexible approach that can be adapted to whatever situation next emerges.”

The state receives 140,000 first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in a weekly allotment from the federal government to vaccinate the nine million adults in North Carolina.

As of Tuesday, North Carolina had administered one million doses of vaccine, according to Cohen — 820,354 first doses and 171,914 had received both doses of vaccine.

“I am so grateful to our vaccine partners across the state who continue working in innovative ways to make sure North Carolinians have a spot to take their shot,” Cohen said in a statement accompanying the news on Feb. 1. “It is incumbent on all of us to use the limited supply of vaccine we have as quickly and equitably as possible, finding new ways to meet people where they are.”

Cohen continues to stress that coronavirus vaccine supplies are very limited in North Carolina and elsewhere. As teachers and school workers wait for their turn, she stressed that data in the studies and research show no cases of students spreading the virus to adults.

Fireside chats

On Tuesday, Cohen and her team launched the inaugural conversation in a COVID-19 Vaccine Live Online Fireside Chat Series to get timely information out through a diversity of voices from across the state on different social media channels.

For an hour, Cohen chatted with the Rev. William J. Barber II, a former president of the state NAACP, an architect of the Moral Monday movement, a pastor in Goldsboro, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

They talked about systemic barriers to health care that have an impact on people of color and the more impoverished in the state.

Cohen shared facts and figures that she often uses in briefings with reporters and responded to questions from Barber and Phyllis Coley, publisher and CEO of Spectacular Magazine.

Barber cautioned against summarily categorizing the Black population as being more skeptical of the vaccine, saying that he has seen studies showing skepticism among white people, too.

He said he worried that couching the skepticism in such terms could lead to a more systemic failure to get the vaccines to communities of color.

Acknowledging how limited the supplies of vaccine are in North Carolina, Barber called on pastors such as himself to begin developing plans to use their sanctuaries as vaccination sites, where people in their congregations can find sanctuary in getting a shot in a trusted spot once more doses are available.

A natural storyteller, Barber highlighted how there should be better messaging for people eligible for and in search of a vaccine by sharing his mother’s experience.

His mother, Eleanor Barber, a longtime public school employee who he described as one of the “best-known people in eastern North Carolina,” has tried and tried to get a vaccine appointment. She continues to wait for a callback.

“If my mama can’t get a callback, Lord have mercy,” Barber said, adding that he was not trying to pull strings to get a special appointment for her.

He also explained to viewers how the vaccine is safe and how it does not give you the coronavirus. He compared how the vaccine works to his mother’s withering look when he would do something wrong.

“When I thought about being mischievous she looked at me and my mind and my heart fought that thought off,” he said. “That’s what this does, it sends a signal to your body, ‘This is not supposed to be here,’ and it begins to fight it off.”

Barber praised Cohen and Cooper for talking straight with the people of North Carolina and called on others to stop spreading inaccurate information intentionally to score political points or otherwise.

“Those of you who are distorting the truth, stop it,” Barber said.

As a pastor who committed early in the pandemic to modeling safe behavior, Barber has held online services for his congregation and advocates mask-wearing and other safety protocols.

“We want to keep people alive,” Barber said.

 

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 9,409 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 764,228 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 2,741 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with coronavirus infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 683,697 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of coronavirus who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 8,937,769 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the coronavirus tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 791 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 645 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Jan. 25, 1,061,308 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.