By Anne Blythe
A groundswell of parents across North Carolina are ready to relinquish their home-schooling roles and are pushing school districts that have yet to open their doors to get students in kindergarten through high school back into classrooms.
They’ve caught the ears of elected officials.
Gov. Roy Cooper, Catherine Truitt, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Eric Davis, chairman of the state Board of Education, and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced new guidance for the state’s 115 school districts on Tuesday, urging each to offer in-person instruction.
To bolster their calls, they pointed to recent studies such as one from 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.
Both studies include data collected over nine weeks from 11 school districts in North Carolina that welcomed children for in-person instruction last fall.
Teachers across the state are pushing back, though, arguing that until they can get COVID-19 vaccines, the risk of getting infected with a virus throwing more contagious variants at them outweighs the benefits of opening schools. They believe that’s the case, even if strict social distancing measures are followed.
Two teachers in one household
Tiffany Kilgore, a music teacher at Norwayne Middle School in Wayne County, has a harrowing story about her experience with COVID-19 that should make anyone questioning the dedication of public school educators take note.
As someone who makes her living playing flute and piano and teaching the wonders of music to tweens and teens, Kilgore is relearning how to move her thumb, wrist and right arm because of mysterious ailments that she and her physicians have only been able to link to the novel coronavirus that has upended how children learn and teachers teach for the past year.
Kilgore, the wife of a fellow music teacher and mother of a third-grader and 3-year-old, had been very careful throughout the pandemic to follow such preventative measures as wearing a mask outside her home and frequently washing her hands.
She has a venous disorder, and because of that opted to do online teaching only in the fall when the Wayne County school district transitioned from full remote instruction to a hybrid model that includes some face-to-face instruction for 11,460 students, as well as providing a full virtual program for 6,000 others.
Her husband, a bandleader and music teacher, decided to return to the classroom, where he tends to get more engagement from his students than teaching virtually.
Some of the students in his classes have tested positive for COVID-19.
“I’m really thankful he has not,” Kilgore said.
Kilgore contracted COVID-19 late in the summer. Five months later, the music teacher still has shortness of breath and battle scars on her right arm and leg to show how difficult it can be to know how the novel coronavirus will affect each person.
Kilgore found out on Aug. 24 that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and had the headaches, body pains and a tough go of it for nearly three weeks. Her husband and children had some fever then, she said, but their tests for the virus came back negative.
“I don’t know how I got it,” Kilgore said. “The only place I’d been was to the Food Lion.”
Her husband had been back in school preparing for classes that were to start in early September, she said, and could have unknowingly been infected but he never tested positive.
While the family isolated themselves from others, she spent her days mostly on the recliner, fighting pain. People in the community dropped off food and other necessities.
The principal of her school even came over to their home in Princeton and mowed the lawn for them.
Teaching from a hospital bed
Kilgore thought she had been through the worst of what COVID-19 had in store for her by mid-September.
Then around Halloween, she developed a sharp and inexplicable pain in her right arm.
Her husband’s birthday is in early November, and she did not want to miss it so she delayed seeking medical help for a few days.
The pain worsened, though, and a lump developed. Her doctor, who wasn’t bringing patients into his practice because of COVID-19, recommended that she go to Johnston Memorial Hospital.
Health care workers there did a scan of her arm and recommended that she go to Duke Health. On Nov. 6 they diagnosed her with a blood clot, a long-term side effect of the coronavirus which has been shown in dozens of studies performed over the past year to result in long-term clotting problems for many patients.
They did surgery on her upper forearm, the inner part just below her elbow, close to midnight and gave her injections of Lovenox, an anticoagulant through Nov. 21.
‘It’s been a nightmare’
Then things got even worse.
On Nov. 23, she was back at the Duke Health emergency department. The next day, while speaking with her vascular surgeon, they decided to schedule a bypass surgery on her occluded artery on Nov. 30.
They would take a blood vessel from her upper right leg and put it in her arm so she once again could have blood flow from below her elbow to her wrist and fingers.
On Nov. 28, Kilgore was readmitted to Duke because of the intense pain. She had the surgery and was still on a blood thinner at the end of January.
While it’s difficult to know for sure whether COVID-19 led to the clotting problems that Kilgore experienced, one of her physicians talked about putting her in a post-COVID pulmonary clinic and following her case.
Some people who contracted COVID-19 have reported having symptoms that last weeks or months after they have gotten negative test results, becoming so-called “long haulers.”
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Kilgore, a teacher for 11 years who only recently started getting a salary of slightly more than $40,000.
She used all her sick leave time in 2020 and benefited from donated days from other teachers who put their time in a pooled bank from which those in need could draw.
There were times when Kilgore taught remote classes from her hospital bed. Like many parents working from home, she had to juggle tending to her own children while educating the children of others.
Kilgore is an advocate of shifting all schools across the state to remote learning only until teachers can get vaccinated.
“There’s so much we don’t know about COVID,” she said.
Why not vaccinate teachers?
President Joe Biden has said that getting children back in school will be a priority for him during his first 100 days with hopes of getting classrooms open by the end of April.
Further troubling teachers across the state are the more contagious variants first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and the impact they might have on children and community spread of COVID-19.
Some scientists, such as Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota who has been one of the president’s advisors, has cautioned that even though COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations are leveling across the country, the variants could cause surges in the weeks and months ahead.
During an interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, Osterholm recommended changing the vaccine strategy to getting more people injected with one dose more quickly while delaying second shots.
“The surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is going to happen in the next six to 14 weeks,” Osterholm said. “If we see that happen, which my 45 years in the trenches tell us we will, we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country.”
Vaccine supplies remain limited at the national and state level.
Under North Carolina’s existing prioritization plan for vaccines, teachers who are under 65 are not eligible for a shot.
Teachers, firefighters, grocery store workers and other essential workers are in the group next up for vaccines, but it could be weeks before there is enough vaccine shipped to North Carolina to expand the eligibility for inoculation to those people.
“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.”
Republicans in the state Senate are looking to take that kind of flexibility away from the local school districts with a bill introduced on Monday and debated in committee on Tuesday that would require all school districts to offer in-person learning.
The governor wants individual districts to continue to be able to make the calls. They’re better equipped to know the staffing levels, he said. They understand the availability of space needed for social distancing and support levels from parents and students in their area for going back to the classrooms.
Questioning the studies
John deVille, a social studies teacher in Franklin who has been giving in-person instruction to Macon County high school students, described what it has been like for him in one of the 100 districts with partially open school doors.
Every school day, he masks up and goes into a classroom, where he instructs students over Google Meet, a video service.
While he agrees with some conclusions of the ABC Science Collaborative study determining that there is very little COVID-19 transmission from student to student, he questions whether the researchers took into account the limitations of contact tracing and reliance on self-reporting for mitigation efforts.
“If you’re making out with your boyfriend and he’s positive, you’re not going to get tested because you don’t want to get held off the volleyball team,” deVille said recently.
When his school opened up for in-person instruction in August, deVille said, Franklin High School had to close down within four days because of a cluster of cases linked to the cafeteria.
DeVille and others understand the benefits of getting students back in classrooms.
“There’s no doubt that sitting at home, sleeping in, zombifying isn’t good for them,” deVille said.
Still, he worries about his own health and that of his colleagues, some of whom have contracted COVID-19 and worry about getting sick again.
“I worry every day,” deVille said.