COVID-19 Data From NC Schools Tapers Off As Reporting Mandate Ends
As school boards across the Charlotte region grapple with mask policies and quarantine strategies, one key data source that shaped this year's decisions is drying up.
Last spring, when the North Carolina General Assembly allowed public schools to bring middle and high school students back in person with minimal distancing, the law said any district doing so had to provide data to the ABC Science Collaborative. The group, created by Duke University's medical school, collects and analyzes data about keeping kids safe in school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The medical experts used last year's data to conclude that remote instruction and 6-foot distancing weren’t worth the cost to kids. They reported that school spread was relatively rare and that one safety measure was more important than all the others.
"The most important lesson that we learned and what we wanted to share with everybody is that masking is very effective at reducing secondary transmission of COVID within the school setting," said Dr. Michael Smith, a Duke pediatrics professor who works with the ABC group and specializes in infectious diseases in children.
This year that requirement expired. Instead of getting COVID-19 data from 100 districts, as it did last year, about 30 in North Carolina are providing it voluntarily now. Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Union County schools, the largest in the region, are not among them.
"We have entered a critical phase of the pandemic where the virus is changing, yet we have recognized the importance of in-person school. Data reporting is more important than ever — to answer new, critical questions but also to provide accountability to our families and communities," ABC co-chairs Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman and Dr. Danny Benjamin said in response to a query about the data.
"Most districts are no longer reporting their numbers to a trusted third party," they continued. "The concern is that these districts are not reporting relevant information to anyone and there is lack of data transparency that is pertinent to the safety of public health."
New Debates On Masks
Despite the ABC Collaborative's finding that masks matter, Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the statewide mask mandate to expire this year. And the General Assembly added the requirement that each school board vote on mask policies each month.
That has led to an ongoing debate over the merits of face coverings and the latest quarantine rules, which allow more students to stay in classrooms when masks are used consistently.
Smith says mask skeptics often note that studies don’t include a control group of unmasked students.
"I have a master’s degree in epidemiology," he said. "I totally understand the spirit of that question. A randomized control trial is the gold standard for evidence."
But Smith says it’s not ethical to ask students to give up the measure that’s most likely to protect them. And he says most of last year’s cases of school spread were connected to lapses in mask use.
This year, schools that opened early without requiring masks provided something of a natural experiment. For instance, Union Academy in Monroe and Mooresville Graded Schools quickly switched to mask mandates when they saw cases and quarantines rise.
"The proof is in the pudding that schools that have tried to open without masks have led to secondary transmissions," Smith said.
Legitimate Quarantine Questions
Last year’s analysis by the ABC Collaborative led to the easing of quarantine requirements for students who consistently wear masks. Now some school board members say they want data on whether sending students home in mask-optional settings really heads off COVID-19 or just interrupts education.
Smith says that’s a good field for study.
"The quarantine rules themselves — who needs to quarantine and how you do it — is something that we’re all learning about," he said. "If your only risk factor is you’ve been in contact with someone who’s got COVID but you have no symptoms, other states do allow children to remain in the school setting."
But Smith says valid questions about quarantine rules are sometimes accompanied by the false idea that kids won’t get COVID-19, or that it’s no big deal if they do.
"This is definitely real," he said. "We’ve got kids in our ICU who need to have breathing tubes."
Self-Reporting Varies Widely
As school boards debate COVID-19 prevention strategies, members of the public often turn to the data posted by districts and charter schools to try to gauge the effectiveness of different approaches.
But finding comparable data from several districts can be nearly impossible. Some break out student and staff cases, while others report only a total. Some list students and staff members in quarantine while others don't. They use different time frames and formats for their COVID-19 dashboards — and a few post nothing at all.
Neither state Superintendent Catherine Truitt nor state Board of Education Chair Eric Davis responded to WFAE’s questions about whether the state can or should require consistent public reporting.
The state does post a weekly list of clusters, where local health officials have identified spread within the schools. As of Tuesday, the state had more than 200 school clusters on its list.