As this week’s education news has been dominated by the General Assembly’s top-down efforts to force schools to return to in-person instruction, a new analysis offers a note of caution. Data analysis from Wake County Board of Education member (and NC State chemistry professor) Jim Martin pushes back on the narrative that COVID incidence in schools is lower than in the surrounding community. Additionally, the analysis identifies spikes in reported cases for school-aged children in Wake County appear to correlate with in-person opening of schools.
The analysis does not offer a definitive assessment as to whether schools are “safe,” but it provides evidence that the dominant narrative may be overly optimistic:
The above data do not answer the question as to whether or not it is possible to safely operate schools in an in-person fashion but indicate that additional caution may be warranted. The incidence of COVID infection in schools is comparable to the incidence of infection in the surrounding community. The Wake County data also strongly suggest that in-person schooling, even under hybrid models, has an identifiable impact on the community incidence of COVID infection. State health officials should examine whether dates of in-person operation similarly correlate with community incidence of COVID infections in other counties.
To reach these conclusions, Martin undertakes a detailed examination of state and Wake County data on COVID incidence disaggregated by age cohort. By disaggregating the data by age cohort, Martin provides evidence that – contrary to claims made by the ABC Science Collaborative – COVID incidence in schools is similar to community incidence.
Martin’s analysis also provides evidence that spikes in school-aged COVID incidence in Wake County correlates with in-person opening of schools. For example, Martin identifies an increase in COVID incidence for Wake County’s age 5-9 cohort following the county’s return to hybrid-in-person instruction for grades Pre-K to 3 on October 26. An additional increase in November corresponds to the county’s decision in November to begin daily in-person (Plan-A) operation for Pre-K to 3, hybrid in-person instruction for grades 6-8, and the return of certain high school athletics.
Ultimately, Martin calls for policymakers to prioritize vaccination of school staff and to ensure that schools follow rigorous safety protocols.