COVID-19 hit North Carolina in March, months after the flu season.
The state got a break; it didn’t experience the traditional flu season along with the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’ll be different in the fall when schools reopen for in-person learning. October, November and December are peak flu months. Students, teachers and support staff with a cough or fever will likely be asked to stay home, said Kenya McNeal-Trice, incoming president of the N.C. Pediatric Society.
“You may have the flu or the common cold, but given our concerns, that still may put you out of the classroom until you prove otherwise that you don’t have COVID and are asymptomatic,” McNeal-Trice said.
McNeal-Trice made her comments Wednesday’s to the State Board of Education. She attended the board’s remote meeting to provide a COVID-19 update along with Susan Gale-Perry, chief deputy Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson.
The prospect of educators and students being forced to miss school due to non-COVID-19 related illnesses highlights the complex environment they will enter when schools reopen.
“That’s going to be hard not only for our teachers and support staff, but also for our students who may have extended days that they miss from school from viral illnesses that are completely unrelated to COVID,” McNeal-Trice said.
She said reopening plans must be “nimble” and that educators, students and parents must be able to adapt and also be resilient.
“We need to recognize that something that may work for us at one point, we may have come to a short place down the road and find out that we need to adjust and that we need to adjust quickly,” McNeal-Trice said.
Tilson said health officials are planning with the best data available but make adjustments as they learn more about the virus.
“I think the one thing you can be sure of and say with certainty is that things are going to change,” Tilson said. “We’re going to learn more and we’re going to have to adapt, we’re going to have change policies.”
Public schools in North Carolina could reopen Aug. 17.
Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper postponed deciding which of the three reopening plans the state will use.
Plan A calls for schools to fully reopen with daily temperature and screen checks before students and staff members can enter buildings. Meanwhile, under Plan B, students would receive both in-person and remote instruction. All students would receive remote instruction under Plan C.
SBE member Olivia Oxendine noted that NCDHHS “strongly recommends” that school districts provide a remote option for students at high risk of contracting the disease. She said students who benefit the most from in-person instruction are too often the ones at greatest risk of contracting COVID-19.
“It’s almost like we’ve got a population of students who are disadvantaged, of all colors, who just can’t seem to win from this, and it breaks my heart,” Oxendine said.
McNeal-Trice there are no perfect solutions, and none without risks.
“We are continuing to see the children and families that are most vulnerable to a lot of things that are outside of our control such as natural disasters and illness and pandemics who are the ones desperately affected,” McNeal-Trice said.
SBE member James Ford asked if health officers have considered the plight of teachers and support staff who will be at risk of contracting the virus when schools reopen.
“On the one hand, a lot of the conversation is centered on the safety of the children, which is appropriate,” Ford said. “That’s Job 1, to keep our students safe in a school.”
But because adults are more susceptible to infections, Ford said he worries about staff and teachers who belong to vulnerable populations and lack access to healthcare, are disproportionately contracting the coronavirus and are disproportionately dying from the disease.
Tilson said precautions such wearing a facemask and social distancing put in place to keep students safe will also keep teachers and support staff safe.
SBE member JB Buxton said his takeaway from the COVID-19 update is that the state has a small window to take the appropriate steps needed to reopen schools safely for educators and students.
“We’ve got to as a state embrace the opportunity to get our kids back in school, to allow parents to get back to work,” Buxton said. “We have to commit to doing the things we know we need to do to reduce our infection rates, to reduce our hospitalization numbers so that becomes a real possibility.”
NCDHHS Secretary Many Cohen said Wednesday that key COVID-19 metrics are moving in the wrong direction. North Carolina has nearly 1,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19. There were 1,435 new confirmed cases of coronavirus reported Wednesday. That pushed the total to 77,310 confirmed cases. There were 1,441 deaths.
Buxton said that given the current reality, North Carolina is “endangering the opportunity” for students to return to schools in the fall.