ABC Science Collaborative Helps Bridge Data Gap to Ensure Safe Reopening of N.C. Schools

February 10, 2021

By Ainsley Buck, Child Policy Research Certificate student ’22

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of collective action in problem solving. In most of our daily lives, we experience this most prominently with mask-wearing and social distancing. Collaboration is also critical on larger scales, such as in legislation and school re-openings.

The ABC Science Collaborative, a consortium of public health scientists and physicians from Duke University and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, has fully embraced this concept in its work to safely re-open K-12 schools across North Carolina. The collaborative partners with schools and helps them make data-driven decisions to keep their faculty, staff, students and community as safe as possible. The collaborative’s ultimate goal is a successful return to in-person learning.

On February 4, 2021, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a webinar with the co-chairs of the ABC Science Collaborative, Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman and Dr. Danny Benjamin, as well as panelists from the education sector. The session began by describing the initiative’s three-pronged approach: (1) informing evidence-based decision making; (2) delivering educational resources; and (3) advancing public health. As part of its program, the ABC Science Collaborative also developed 12 principles for reopening, with an emphasis on transparency and tracking. Notably, they have developed a mobile app and platform that allows schools to track symptoms and cases.

The initiative was established in response to COVID-19’s impact on education for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools and has now been implemented across 11 North Carolina school districts. While the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided metric guidance for school re-opening, they did not provide specific criteria on when to transition from a virtual to hybrid or fully in-person model: the ABC Science Collaborative filled that gap. Superintendent of Wake County Public Schools Cathy Moore, emphasized the usefulness of understanding how to incorporate the data into schools’ evolving decisions.

Dr. Zimmerman noted that health professionals’ and scientists’ experience on the ground gives them a valuable perspective, introducing questions to legislators such as, “Can they actually implement that as a school?” Additionally, while the goal of school closures is to mitigate spread, the data reveals that school-acquired transmission is far less common than community-acquired transmission. Stanley Litow, professor at the Sanford School and member of the New York City Education Sector Advisory Council, echoed this sentiment, noting that schools are less vulnerable to spread than other institutions. Importantly, this information must be communicated to parents, students, and school faculty, while validating and incorporating their concerns into re-opening protocols.

Deputy Superintendent of Durham Public Schools (DPS), Nakia Hardy, notes that robust public involvement is crucial to achieve this balance: “This truly is a multi-pronged approach. When you sit in the Triangle, there are so many resources, and we really believe in a partnership.” Hardy elaborated that the collaboration allowed her to focus on DPS-specific initiatives, such as learning centers. These locations ensure access to a safe and productive learning environment.

When asked about future challenges in the 2021-2022 school year, Orange County Commissioner Dr. Amy Fowler, a pediatrician and previous Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board member, brought attention to the emotional strain of social isolation, noting that she has is seeing rising numbers of anxiety and depression cases among students in her practice. Additionally, Fowler discussed how students without access to the necessary tools would experience the most learning loss. While COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequity, panelists expressed hope that the additional attention on these inequities will shift energy into finding solutions. Moore says, “If there ever was an opportunity to re-vision, reshape, reprioritize what our needs are and how we creatively… approach education for students, it is now.”

The ABC Science Collaborative and our panelists reiterated that working together is key to achieving the safest return to normalcy. Nakia Hardy reminded us all that, “Although we are separated, we are here with you.”

The “Using Data to Advise K-12 Public School Systems during the Pandemic” webinar was sponsored by the School Research Partnership, an initiative of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.