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Three Weeks Into NC School Reopening, Promising Signs And Lingering Questions

NC Department of Health and Human Services

North Carolina health officials say they're encouraged that the first three weeks of school haven't brought a surge in COVID-19 cases among children under 18.

"We are not seeing a spike among cases in children, but I do want to say this is very early data," Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary for health and human services, told the state Board of Education Thursday.

She showed a chart tracking lab-documented cases in North Carolinians 24 and younger. It showed the numbers starting to build in May and appearing to peak in mid-July. After that, cases among children under 18 declined and leveled off, while cases in 18- to 24-year-olds shot up again in mid-August, reaching a new high at the month's end.

That tracks a spate of outbreaks after students returned to college campuses.

Perry said only four COVID-19 clusters -- defined as five or more related cases -- have been reported in K-12 schools since Aug. 17, when public schools reopened. According to her list, two of those were at private Christian schools. Most of the cases have been among staff, she said.

"What that tells us is what we already know about, in particular, younger children being less likely to get COVID or less likely to be strong transmitters of the virus," Perry said. 

Most Still Remote

The majority of public school students haven't returned to class yet, either because their districts chose an all-remote "Plan C" opening or because their families opted to enroll them in remote academies in districts that resumed "Plan B"  in-person classes.

But Perry said growing numbers of students are doing their remote classes in group settings -- either through licensed childcare centers or partnerships between school districts and community groups. An unknown additional number are taking part in informal "pods" set up by families to provide small-group support.

Perry said it's important to work with groups providing care and supervision to make sure they're following health guidelines.

"I think all of our goal is that children are in school," she said. "We made the choice to allow schools to open in Plan B back in July. We continue to look forward to seeing more schools move in that direction and are grateful to those who are doing it."

Readiness Survey

Health officials also reported on a K-12 school reopening survey done by the Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina School Superintendents Association. Superintendents and charter school leaders were asked how prepared they felt to deal with social distancing, handling COVID-19 cases, communicating when cases occur and making sure staff and students use face coverings and proper hygiene.

Overall confidence levels were high, with the greatest uncertainty focused on handling cases. Across the board there were more low-confidence ratings from charter schools, said Rebecca Planchard, a senior policy analyst for DHHS.

"Some charter school leaders don’t feel prepared yet to meet our public health requirements, and some feel very well prepared," she said.

The report to the board provided no detail on individual districts, charter schools or regions. 

Hoping For Sports

Commissioner Que Tucker of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association told the board her group is working on updated sports guidelines in the wake of Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement that he’s allowing larger outdoor gatherings. 

"So that announcement on Tuesday means that we can adjust the numbers of athletes who can work out, condition, do skill development with their coaches," she said.

Tucker said many questions remain as the state moves toward the scheduled return of high school sports competitions in November. She said some changes hinge on the governor moving into Phase 3 of coronavirus restrictions. Phase 2.5 starts at 5 p.m. Friday.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.