NEW HANOVER COUNTY—New Hanover County Schools is joining a collaborative with science experts to inform its most pressing decision: When and how will school fully reopen?
Before Thanksgiving, the board of education voted unanimously during an interim meeting to sign a memorandum of understanding and data-sharing agreement with ABC Science Collaborative.
Formed in response to the pandemic, the ABC Science Collaborative is a team of doctors from Duke University School of Medicine and the Duke Clinical Research Institute that are researching and informing school districts across the state on the impacts of Covid-19 in the classroom. The program is funded through the National Institutes of Health and offers expertise to school systems at no cost.
The agreements between NHCS and the collaborative formalize the working relationship between the two entities and grants Duke access to confidential Covid-19 data from the schools, given it complies with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and keeps the information internal.
Dr. Michael Smith, a pediatric infectious disease doctor, gave an overview of the project at the November regular school board meeting. He explained the goal of the collaborative is to present up-to-date, evidence-based science utilizing the school system’s specific Covid-19 data.
“We’re not going to tell you what to do, but we’ll work with you to make the safest decisions that we can for your children,” Smith told the board.
The ABC Science Collaborative makes clear it does not exist to replace health departments and will not recommend specific action. While public health works on an individual-basis in contact tracing and is occupied with tracking numbers, the collaborative studies the spread of the coronavirus in schools on a macro level.
According to the agreement, Duke has identified and will appoint a multi-disciplinary group of seven physicians and researchers to serve on a Covid-19 scientific analysis board for NHCS. The group will administer research employing various sources, including scientific articles, infection rates, and student and employee data. It will then summarize its conclusions to educate leaders on reopening strategies.
New Hanover County is currently operating under Plan B on an AA/BB schedule. Students are split into two cohorts with each attending face-to-face instruction twice a week and learning remotely the remainder of the days.
At this time, Gov. Roy Cooper has only allowed elementary schools to reopen fully, but NHCS has yet to pursue that route. Julie Varnam, assistant superintendent to support services, told Port City Daily it is an ongoing discussion. However, there is no “magic number” or timeline for when students will return to school fully, she added.
“We aren’t where we really want to be instructionally, and we have had to kind of take a step back because of the pandemic,” Varnam said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a quiet time regarding our schedule until we are full time back with kids face-to-face where we believe that we’ll have a greater opportunity for their learning outcomes.”
Last month, administrators suggested the board of education wait until the percent of Covid-19 tests returning positive in the county lowers to 5% or less before considering Plan A for elementary schools. But Varnam said the ABC Science Collaborative could help the district be more precise when defining which trends to watch for.
“Sometimes our metrics can be too generalized to the community that don’t have the same structures that we have within the school setting,” Varnam said.
The collaborative will give an idea of how Covid-19 is being transmitted within classrooms, both in NHCS and in other districts. With school systems such as Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenberg collaborating, the program has collected a data pool that represents a large percentage of the state’s student population to pull from when conducting research.
“We’re talking about research in its purest sense,” Smith told the board in November. “What can you all do in New Hanover and how does that compare to other districts across the state? What works well when you go back to school, what doesn’t work well? And we can share that across the state.”
As an example, Varnam explained the collaborative could study and compare the effectiveness of masks in districts that are strictly conforming versus those with looser enforcement.
The collaborative works closely with superintendents, hosting biweekly Zoom sessions to break down concepts, examine Covid-19 numbers, and review national, state and local epidemiology. NHCS Superintendent Charles Foust has participated in several meetings.
“They can be confusing sometimes. We really want to explain those things,” Smith said. “What’s going on with new therapies? What’s going on with the new vaccines that you heard about yesterday? What’s the best evidence about things like face covering, indoor versus outdoor instruction, and differential transmission in age groups?”
Foust said in last Tuesday’s meeting that signing the memorandum of understanding and authorizing the data release to the collaborative allows flexibility in the way the district and the program work together. Leaders of the collaborative may appear at board meetings in the future, he added.
The collaborative assures the data is presented in a manner that’s clear, direct and easy to follow, demonstrated through infographics and examples, according to Smith. Public webinars, a newsletter and slideshows with information are publicly available on the program’s website.
New Hanover County is now one of about 25 school districts across the state formally associated with the program. Guilford, Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro counties are among those who have joined. Smith said the collaborative is also expanding its initiative across the country, as well.
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