Transmission of the COVID-19 virus has been “extremely limited” in public schools that have reopened in North Carolina, a team of researchers from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill have found.

A new study published this week says only a handful of coronavirus cases can be traced to schools, and no children were found to have transmitted the virus to adults.

“Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely,” if school districts stick to COVID-prevention guidelines, the researchers say.

The study is set to be published in the January edition of the respected medical journal Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all K-12 public schools to close in mid-March as North Carolina’s first COVID cases were beginning to be reported. Some have never reopened; others temporarily brought back students in the fall before closing again. Still others have returned on a limited basis, with many students in the classroom just two days per week.

Schools that are open require students age 5 or older to wear masks, and school buildings have been modified to allow for 6 feet of social distancing when possible. All students are temperature-checked before entering.

But with so many schools closed and children at home, State Department of Public Instruction leaders have warned that more students are failing and at risk of repeating a grade than anytime in the past century.

This study indicates the risk of keeping schools is significantly less than once feared and undercuts arguments that large districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have used to keep schools closed.

How the study was conducted

At the behest of local school district leaders, Duke and UNC doctors examined 11 school districts that opened for at least the first nine weeks of school and agreed to share data with the research team.

Researchers meet weekly to discuss findings, and local health departments shared results of contact tracing.

Over the nine weeks, the study found 773 cases of COVID confirmed by molecular testing among the 90,000 students and staff who attended school. Of these cases, just 32 were presumed to be transmitted within the school. Six of the 11 districts had no cases of within-school infection. Most of the cases of in-school transmission, the study states, came when masks were not worn — for instance, among young children, special needs students, or during lunch.

Zero instances of child-to-adult transmission were found, the study states.

Based on these numbers, the researchers concluded that “within-school infections were extremely rare.”