A new national study says that it appears safe to reopen schools for in-person instruction in counties with lower rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The study, conducted by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, is the first of its kind to analyze data from all U.S. counties. As a gauge for safely reopening schools, researchers used a threshold of 36 to 44 new hospitalizations per 100,000 people per week.

Under the study’s rationale, some North Carolina counties — including Wake, Union, Guilford, Brunswick, Davidson, Iredell, Pitt, Randolph, and Rowan — could safely reopen schools for in-person instruction. Mecklenburg County is just over the threshold at 44.15 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 population.

As of mid-December, 58% of all counties in the U.S. fell under the hospitalization threshold to qualify for safe reopening, according to the study.

Dr. Terry Stoops would agree. He’s the director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

“Scientists agree that school reopening is safe and critical for the well-being of children.” 

Researchers opted to rely on hospitalization rates rather than confirmed cases of COVID-19 because that metric “gets us much closer to the outcomes of greatest importance — actual sickness.”

“While closing school buildings has been a reasonable reaction to an uncertain and fluid pandemic, the school closures are likely to compound the social and economic crisis in the short-term and the long-term,” the authors wrote. “As we try to grapple with the possible health costs of reopening schools, it is also important to consider the health and other costs to keeping them closed.”

Researchers used data on reopening plans compiled by Education Week and two private data collection companies, Burbio and MCH Strategic Data. They combined that information with virus-related hospitalization data from Change Healthcare and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The data were collected between January 1 and October 30, 2020.

Researchers were careful to note that their findings are not an endorsement of reopening or not reopening schools — the data simply provide needed context for such decisions.

 “The extent of this trade-off between the costs and benefits of reopening schools depends on how the virus spreads, the measures that schools take to reopen safely, and the kinds of social interactions in-person schooling replaces,” the authors wrote.

After closing their doors in spring 2020, some N.C. school systems returned to either in-person instruction or a hybrid approach for the fall semester. But spiking COVID-19 rates prompted many districts to fall back to remote-only instruction in recent weeks.

“School board members who have voted to keep public schools closed are ignoring the scientific consensus on school reopening.  Instead, they are listening to a small number of outspoken, mostly teacher union-affiliated fearmongers that express shockingly little regard for the needs of children and families,” Stoops told Carolina Journal.

 “While states have made tremendous strides in expanding school choice, the pandemic revealed a vast unmet need for expanded educational options. No child should be denied in-person instruction due to the misinformed decisions of school board majorities.”