Have NC’s public schools had ‘very few’ COVID-19 clusters?

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — State leaders want to get K-12 students back into classrooms in a safe way.

CBS 17 News took a closer look at one statement made by state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen about public schools and their susceptibility to clusters of COVID-19.

THE CLAIM: Speaking about the safety of in-person instruction with safety protocols in place, Cohen said “we have seen very few COVID-19 clusters in our public schools.”

THE FACTS: That might depend on what you compare it to, and what you consider “very few.”

DHHS defines a cluster as five or more epidemiologically linked cases over a 14-day span. 

The department in August began issuing a biweekly list of schools and child-care centers that are experiencing active clusters, with the next update due Friday. CBS 17 News has collected and tracked those lists for seven months.

There were 51 schools on the list issued Tuesday, and 32 of them — more than 60 percent — were public schools. A review of the reports over the past month turned up a similar percentage.

But on the other hand, in North Carolina there are about 2,500 public schools to only about 750 private schools — a ratio of more than 3-to-1.

From Jan. 12 to Tuesday, a total of 81 schools have reported clusters — 52 public, 29 private. That means only about 2 percent of all public schools had clusters in that time, while the rate among private schools during that span was roughly twice as high, at 4 percent.

A CBS 17 News report in November found at that time, private schools did face more and larger clusters of COVID-19 than their public counterparts.

The obvious explanation: Private schools had largely been holding in-person classes since August, while many public schools began the year with online instruction before opening to some in-person learning later in the semester.

Some public schools have yet to reopen during the spring semester. According to a database from the North Carolina School Board Association, 79 of the state’s 115 public school districts currently offer some option for in-person learning. Wake County Schools is scheduled to resume in-person learning next week.

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