What the delta variant means for this school year
We’re in the final days before students return to schools around the country. Yet, the rhetoric from many government leaders around school reopening has been like so many others related to COVID-19: Clunky, often more emotional than scientific and presented as certain. But little is certain.
We are facing exponential increases in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant. In fact, in counties where the majority of adults had chosen not to get vaccinated, we are seeing infection rates that have eclipsed previous records and hospitals in these areas are nearing capacity. In these areas the rapid transmission of the delta variant may lead to subsequent and more dangerous variants that can put the health and economic recovery of the rest of the country, the world even, at risk.
A lot has changed since the pronouncements that schools will return to pre-pandemic form were first made in the spring. First, the delta variant is now ubiquitous. It is extremely transmissible-at least 50 percent more than the alpha variant that fueled our winter peak. Second, children are getting infected more frequently than at any other point. What hasn’t changed is that our “leaders” haven’t stopped politicizing COVID-19 — but now our children are at increased risk.
Based on the data from last school year, most K-12 schools that operated in some capacity pre-delta had at least one class sent home to quarantine following the news that one of their students tested positive. In the spring, some schools returned to hybrid instruction after nearly a year online. Those schools and school systems that could afford it, implemented testing protocols, symptom and exposure screening, along with enforcement of masks and physical distancing guidelines.
These measures should have been viewed as a warm-up drill for what would be needed in most school districts in the coming school year — given a more contagious strain of COVID-19 and the increased number of children being infected. It was inevitable that we would see a spike in COVID-19 cases given the experiences of the UK and India.
Rather than taking steps to safeguard our children, divisive politicians have sent out the message that kids need to be unmasked to be happy or to learn. On the contrary, the data have been pretty clear that masking especially in the early elementary school years is not a problem for most kids. They comply. It’s the adults who are turning it into a political statement.
With a “post-pandemic” mindset prevailing in many places, more children have been engaged in group activities since the introduction of delta to our country. As a result, more children are testing positive. It’s a numbers game. More children will be infected with COVID-19, particularly in those counties where vaccination rates are low and where masks continue to be used as more of a political statement than a public health measure to save lives.
Sadly, we are moving to a place where it will be inevitable that every school district will have to share the news that one of its own students has been hospitalized due to COVID-19 or, tragically, succumbed to the disease. There is no reason for this. Every school should require masking of its students and vaccination of all of its staff with rare medical exemptions. Schools should be able to facilitate physical distancing. These simple and effective measures can go a long way in reducing the chance of infection.
Where are the adults in taking responsibility for protecting our children? Our “leaders” continue to fail in the most basic ways to protect their most vulnerable citizens. Some chose to get the vaccine in hiding, some seem to actively propagate misinformation regarding the vaccine and the effects of the disease and some are arguing that masking children hinders their happiness and education. The only thing that we are certain about is that COVID-19 is a novel virus and while there are some basic tenets of infectious disease that we lean on, there are things to learn when you are facing a new situation.
Humility is needed, both from the scientists and the policymakers. Civility is needed from adults who set the tone for the country and our children. While there are many uncertainties that remain, one thing is for sure: Our children look to adults to protect them from harm and to make policies that keep them safe while learning. It is time that our leaders become the responsible adults our children need them to be.
Amira A. Roess, Ph.D., MPH, is an epidemiologist with expertise in infectious diseases emergence and transmission. She is a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University and had served as an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC.
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