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Column: To reopen, or not to reopen? That is the question for Orange County Schools

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Swetha Ganesan, an Orange County resident and graduate student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Photo courtesy of Ganesan.

The OC Voice is a portion of the OC Report newsletter where local residents may have a platform to talk about local issues they care about. Swetha Ganesan is an Orange County resident and graduate student pursuing a master of public health degree in the Department of Health Behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

As we approach our nine-month anniversary of quarantine due to COVID-19, North Carolina is searching for ways to safely bring back a sense of normalcy — or at least as close to normalcy as we can get during a pandemic — and one avenue that is being actively explored is the safe reopening of public elementary schools. 

Safely sending students, especially our young ones in elementary school, back to school in the era of COVID-19 is a public health dilemma. Experts have found that in-person interactions play vital roles in the social, behavioral and emotional development of young children. 

Young elementary school kids are usually not yet academically self-sufficient, and online-based schooling often results in low academic motivation and screen fatigue, which can lead to educational deficits and poorer mental health outcomes for students. In Orange County, we want to set our students up for success, and that starts with shifting away from online elementary school education and towards hybrid/in-person schooling. 

Gov. Roy Cooper announced that elementary schools can begin to reopen in-person instruction at the discretion of county leaders, and the Orange County Board of Education has begun developing a Plan B for opening elementary schools by January 2021. 

The existing Plan B policy includes five key mitigation strategies in accordance with CDC guidelines: consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing to the largest extent possible, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfecting and contact tracing with the Orange County Health Department. 

However, there have been 230 cases of COVID-19 recorded per 100,000 Orange County residents in the last 14 days according to the COVID-19 N.C. Dashboard, and I argue that the existing Plan B policy by the county's Board of Education is insufficient to ensure safe reopening of elementary schools, given the current risk of transmission in Orange County. 

A team of MPH students, including myself, at UNC propose four policy additions to the OCBE’s current Plan B to help facilitate safer implementation of in-person instruction. 

Our policy additions include: 

  • Rotating half-day class scheduling to avoid COVID-19 transmission during lunchtime.
  • Masks required in schools by everyone at all times.
  • Hand-sanitizing stations made available in every classroom.
  • Weekly saliva-based COVID-19 testing of students through a partnership with UNC.

We believe that these policy additions will supplement the Board’s current plan for reopening elementary schools and serve as a safeguard for the children of our community. 

It is feasible for the county's Board of Education  to adopt our proposed policy additions by January 2021, but we need the support of concerned Orange County citizens to help make this happen. You can familiarize yourself with the Board's policy decisions regarding COVID-19 through the Orange County School District website. You can also email the Board directly at to urge the Board to prioritize the safety of Orange County children and adopt the four policy additions. 

With the new year just around the corner, we must look forward to finding ways to safely open schools for the benefit of the children in our community. The health and well-being of our community’s children are protected when we ensure that our students can learn and thrive in a safe, yet stimulating, environment. 

We need to hold Orange County’s elementary schools accountable for the safety of our students by calling upon the Board of Education to adopt the four proposed policy additions for safe school reopening. Change happens one phone call or email at a time, and the time to act is now. Reach out to the Orange County Board of Education today. 

If you live in Orange County and want to make your voice heard on something you care about locally, email 

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