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NC COVID-19 study on schools finds masking important, social distancing & quarantine less useful when masking

The Duke-led ABC Science Collaborative found schools in North Carolina effectively slowed COVID-19 spread and masking is still crucial in keeping students in-person.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new study on COVID-19 spread in North Carolina schools is shedding light on which pandemic protocols are most effective and which ones have questionable usefulness.

The Duke University-led ABC Science Collaborative released the findings of its 10-12-week study of 100 school districts and 14 charter schools with hopes they will help policymakers safely shape the school year to come.

Dr. Danny Benjamin and Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, collaborative co-chairs, shared the research conclusions, which they said, first and foremost, solidified the effectiveness of masking in preventing COVID-19 spread.

"The data from North Carolina definitely add to data coming from Utah, Wisconsin, Missouri, Mississippi. All of it says the same thing: with masking in place, the secondary attack rate (of the virus) is really, really low," Zimmerman said.

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According to the collaborative summary, out of 1.2 million students studied, there were fewer than 400 cases of in-school transmission of the virus over the roughly three-month study period.

"North Carolina school districts, K-12 education, and charter schools did an outstanding job of preventing COVID-19 transmission in schools," Benjamin said.

However, the team found not all safety protocols were useful when masking was in place.

"The amount of distancing, whether it's less than 6 feet, less than 3 feet, no distancing at all -- it didn't make any difference," Benjamin said.

The concept of quarantine, when masking is possible, was also questionable.

"We had more than 40,000 people who had to quarantine during the 10-12 weeks. More than 40,000 people is hundreds of thousands of school days that have been missed because of quarantine, and yet the benefit that we're seeing is nil," Zimmerman said.

Researchers say the emergence of the delta variant does not change their conclusions, as the variant, while more contagious, should not escape masking.

The study findings come as North Carolina lawmakers consider legislation titled "Free the Smiles," a measure meant to allow school districts to decide for themselves whether they will require masking on campus.

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