After a NC teacher's COVID-related death, educators are questioning safety of in-person classrooms. (Image via Shutterstock) School During a Pandemic
After a NC teacher's COVID-related death, educators are questioning safety of in-person classrooms. (Image via Shutterstock)

Stanly County teacher Julie Davis’ death spurs debate over safety of in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Monday, a day after Stanly County school teacher Julie Davis died of complications from COVID-19, the local health department and school board were quick to insist that Davis did not get sick at work. 

But a member of Davis’ family and the head of North Carolina’s largest teacher advocacy organization are questioning how the local school board and health department could be so certain.   

“There’s no definite way to know [Davis] didn’t contract it at school, particularly knowing that the school had a positive student case earlier in [September],” NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly told Cardinal & Pine.

And Davis’ brother, Stan Andrews, told The Charlotte Observer a different story than the school system as well.

“I said to her, ‘Julie, where did you get it?’ She said, ‘I got it at school. There was a student that had it.’”

Stanly County Health Director David Jenkins left little room for speculation when he told The Stanly News & Press that Davis, a 49-year old third-grade teacher at Norwood Elementary School, did not contract the virus at her school.

When The Observer questioned Jenkins on how the department came to its conclusion, he referred them to Montgomery County, where Davis lived.  

Montgomery County Health Director Mary Perez told the paper that Davis was questioned on Sept. 28, following her positive test result. Davis denied having contact with anyone who tested positive or displayed COVID-19 symptoms, Perez said.

“Stanly County Schools is deeply saddened and grieving the loss of Julie Davis,” Stanly County Interim Superintendent Vicki Calvert wrote in an email to Cardinal & Pine this week. “[But] there is no information from the local health department indicating Mrs. Davis contracted the COVID-19 virus from any staff member or student on campus.”

Calvert wrote that the student in question reported symptoms on Sept 3. The student later tested positive, and went into quarantine.

“Mrs. Davis and this particular student never had close contact at school with each other,” Calvert wrote.

But Walker Kelly questioned whether asking where Davis contracted the virus really matters.

“To say that [Davis] didn’t contract it at school feeds into a narrative that makes … us say our communities aren’t safe but schools are,” Walker Kelly said.

Walker Kelly wrote in a Facebook post Monday that Davis’ death was “completely preventable.”

“Julie did not have to die in order for her to teach her students, nor should any of our educators have to make the decision between doing the jobs they love and risking their lives,” she said.

On behalf of the North Carolina Association of Educators:Dear Members:It is with a heavy heart that I report that…

Posted by Tamika Walker Kelly on Monday, October 5, 2020

Like many school systems, Stanly County adopted Plan B, a hybrid of remote learning and in-person classes that is a midpoint between Gov. Roy Cooper’s Plan A embrace of all face-to-face classrooms and Plan C’s all-remote learning model.

The district modified its approach after Sept. 17, when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that beginning on Oct. 5, NC public school districts and charter schools can choose to send elementary school students grades K-5 back to in-person classrooms.  

Under Stanly County’s current model, children grades K-4 are attending physical classes full time, while older children continue to mix virtual instruction and in-person classrooms.

“Mrs. Davis self-quarantined when she began to experience symptoms on Friday, September 25th,” Calvert wrote. “After the District received confirmation of a positive result on Sunday, September 27th, our school nurses worked with the Stanly County Health Department on contact tracing and determined the measures that [were] needed.”

Staff and students who had been in contact with Davis have also been quarantined, Calvert wrote, but no one has tested positive for the virus.

COVID-19-related quarantines in the school district have not been confined to Norwood Elementary School. On Tuesday, Stanly County Schools announced that North Stanly High School was responding to a wave of viral infections.

“Due to multiple COVID-19 positive cases among school staff, all students at North Stanly High School will transition to remote learning from October 7 through October 16,” the statement read.

Davis’ death should signal to school districts to take care in transitioning to in-person instruction, Walker Kelly said. 

“We do not have to send educators into school buildings in order to make sure instruction continues,” Walker Kelly said. “Plan C is the safest option, but local health departments working in conjunction with local school boards have the best data on their local metrics, [and] need to be in constant conversation in order to decide when it is appropriate and necessary to [change plans].”

A Hodgepodge of Plans 

As of Sept. 30, Spectrum News reported that half of NC’s counties were planning on utilizing a modified Plan B, which contains provisions to send elementary grades to physical classrooms. 

Since then, several school districts that began the school year with remote learning under Plan C have opted to transition to in-person instruction for elementary grades.

And as of this week, public health officials are reporting 15 coronavirus clusters in school systems, defined as five or more cases over a 14-day period. No clusters have been reported in Stanly County.

In Wake County, North Carolina’s largest school district, the school board voted last week to let elementary and middle school students return for in-person instruction on Oct. 26.

Under Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ plan, K-5 students are split into two groups. Starting Nov. 2, each group will attend school two days each week, and practice remote learning on one day.    

Walker Kelly cautioned that school districts need to be prepared for the coming cold and flu season where distinguishing COVID-19 from the flu will be a challenge. Identifying individuals who could be transmitting the virus is also difficult because children are often asymptomatic, she said.

Older school buildings’ poor ventilation will also heighten teachers’ and students’ risks of contracting COVID-19, Walker Kelly said.

Walker Kelly stressed that the NCAE did not advocate rolling back schools reopening in NC. Instead, she said they “have been advocating for safe conditions so that people can return to school.”

Kim Biondi, a Cabarrus County high school teacher who also serves as secretary of her local NCAE chapter, told Cardinal & Pine this week that she wasn’t sure schools will be safe enough. In her district, the school board voted last month to begin in-person learning for grades K-3 on Oct. 19.

She said it is irresponsible to blame underpaid and overworked faculty and staff for the situation, and that a death like Davis’ should have been “expected” under current conditions in NC’s schools. 

“As more children return to these schools, we will see kids, teachers and other adults continue to get sick,” Biondi said. “Some will recover quickly enough, some will suffer lingering effects, and some will die.”