As schools across the state operate online or with limited in-person learning plans, North Carolina families face complex concerns about viral transmission, mental health, educational challenges, and childcare needs. School re-openings have been at the forefront of parents’, teachers’, and school administrators’ minds since the pandemic closed schools in mid-March.
Researchers from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are teaming up with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute to determine how North Carolina schools are operating during COVID-19. As both an epidemiologist and a mom, Kimberly Powers, one of the principal investigators, says the issue is something that has permeated both her professional and personal life.
“There are significant downsides and serious repercussions to keeping schools closed, as well as opening them,” Powers says. “It became clear early on that how you open schools would be a big public health and life challenge in the pandemic, and research would be needed to address it.”
With funding from the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, Powers, UNC epidemiologist and co-principal investigator Allison Aiello, and their team will conduct a two-part study to determine what policies and practices schools have developed to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to gauge how teachers in those schools feel they are working.
The first part of the study consists of a detailed review of the policies implemented by schools across the state. The goal is to determine how schools decided which reopening plan to follow, the transmission prevention protocols to implement, and their solutions to address student access to resources that may be difficult to get from home.
“Schools are an important cornerstone of so many aspects of kids’ lives,” Powers says. “They provide access to nutrition services, mental health services, social interaction, and so many other opportunities and supports, in addition to academic opportunities and growth.”
The second part of the study will be a cross-sectional, web-based survey taken by teachers to provide an understanding of their experience within schools as they reopen.
“Teachers witness first-hand everything in schools as re-openings are unfolding,” Powers says. “They are the eyes and the ears on the ground that can assess the extent to which the mitigation measures can be successfully implemented.”
The survey will ask teachers about the COVID-19 training they received, how confident and prepared they feel, the implementation of mitigation measures, and about their own well-being. Powers and her team plan to get responses from teachers in districts across North Carolina’s diverse regions.
“We do expect that results of this study can give the public a sense for what’s happening in schools across the state,” Powers says. “Hopefully, we can help make parents feel more confident by identifying pieces that are working and pieces that may need more attention.”
While Powers has a background in infectious disease epidemiology, most of her work has focused on HIV, meaning she’s accustomed to building upon decades of prior research and a detailed understanding of how the disease is transmitted. With COVID-19 research, that deep foundation does not exist.
“It’s like drinking from a firehose: There’s so much urgency involved, the stakes are high, and there’s so much to learn on a daily basis,” she says. “Planning a study amidst the dynamic, seismic changes happening constantly has been really challenging.”
Powers and her team will conduct their initial study on school re-openings through December and strive to publish their findings by early 2021. Powers feels exhilarated and inspired by the work researchers at UNC and across the state have been able to achieve so quickly.
“We do still have a long way to go,” she says. “But I personally feel in a better place about where we are in research, as a state and as a people, than a few months ago.”
Kimberly Powers is an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Allison Aiello is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center.
This project is supported with funding from the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, which was established by the N.C. General Assembly in 2016 to apply expertise within the UNC System to practical problems faced by the state and local government.