CHARLOTTE, N.C. — From the start, experts have said decisions around COVID-19 protocols have been led by science. As trends continue to head in the right direction and we shift into an endemic phase, those protocols are starting to relax.
Most students will soon get to choose whether they want to wear a mask in the classroom. On Tuesday night, the CMS Board of Education voted to move to mask optional on March 7.
For two years, researchers have been carefully studying COVID-19 spread within schools to guide policies on how to best protect children.
“What we’ve found has been fairly consistent,” Dr. Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric disease physician at Duke University, said. “In schools that have used universal masking, especially prior to omicron variant spread, there was clearly a substantially lower incidence of COVID in those schools.”
Kalu is part of the ABC Science Collaborative, a group of scientists, physicians, and school leaders navigating school in the pandemic.
Kalu thinks face coverings should be slowly phased out. But the reality is, mask policies will soon flip like a switch for many kids as North Carolina pushes for districts to go optional by March 7. She said the changes reinforce the need for other safety measures.
“Ultimately, we still need to have a foundation of safety within schools, and I think vaccinations can play that role,” Kalu said.
Backing that up is a recent study she collaborated on with Providence Day School sophomore Pavan Thakkar. Together they compared COVID-19 cases among vaccinated and unvaccinated students during the delta surge, when kids under 12 weren’t yet eligible to get the shots. The data was collected by Thakkar.
Thakkar thrives learning on campus at Providence Day School.
“When we were online it was difficult to connect with your teachers and classmates when you’re seeing them only over a video screen,” he said.
He was relieved in-person learning started again in the summer of 2020, but he was also curious about what could keep him and his classmates protected.
“When I first heard about the plan to come back to school it was really not known what measures worked, what didn’t work, whether schools would be safe,” Thakkar said.
So, he decided to find out, passionately collecting data on COVID-19 spread in the classroom and how masks and vaccines can play a role.
Eventually, he reached out to researchers with the ABC Science Collective and got in touch with Kalu.
“He championed this cause from the beginning all the way through publication,” Kalu said.
Thakkar now has two original research studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The latest in Pediatrics underscoring the importance of COVID-19 shots.
“We found that unvaccinated students had eight times the rate of covid infections compared to vaccinated students,” he said.
His research helped to guide policy at his schools.
Providence Day School is an independent preparatory school separate from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Providence Day School still falls under the Mecklenburg County mask mandate, which through this coming Monday, required so face coverings be worn in all schools.