Opinion | Will the Delta Variant Upend Another School Year?
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When schools across the country let out in May and June, there was hope that by summer’s end children would be able to return to class unburdened by concerns about the coronavirus. But instead, the Delta variant and a stalled vaccination campaign plunged the country into a fourth wave of infections, leaving students to enter yet another pandemic-upended school year, their third.
What have we learned about the safety of school reopenings, and how has the rise of the Delta variant changed the equation? Here’s what people are saying.
‘We are in a very different place than we were a year ago’
Since the early months of the pandemic, it’s been clear that the coronavirus presents much less of a threat to children than to adults. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of serious complications from Covid-19 for young children is actually lower than from the flu. “Of all the risk factors and comorbidities we read and heard so much about last spring, from race and class to obesity and COPD, each of which should raise ringing alarm bells about inequities in our society and our health system, the effect of age absolutely dwarfs all of them,” David Wallace-Wells writes for New York magazine.
The biggest epidemiological question was whether reopening schools would seed community outbreaks. For many months, science offered very few clear answers. But studies have since suggested that in-school transmission was generally low last year when schools took basic precautions. Wisconsin, North Carolina, Utah and New York City have all shown that children can return to classrooms without causing substantial outbreaks.
And now that vaccines are widely available to those over 12, it’s much more difficult to justify keeping schools closed. “We are in a very different place than we were a year ago,” Elizabeth Stuart, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Times. “We have very effective vaccines, we know a lot more about how to open schools safely, and we, I think, have a heightened awareness of some of the challenges that kids face when they’re not in in-person school.”
Those challenges were felt across the board, but new research suggests they fell especially hard on already disadvantaged students. In math, for example, one report found that Asian and white students performed nine percentile points lower in spring 2021 than their counterparts did in 2019, while Black and Latino scores declined by 15 and 17 points. For students who attended low-income schools, the decline was 17 points. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Karyn Lewis, the study’s lead author said. “It just keeps you up at night.”
The narrative of “learning loss” that attends such dire conclusions is not without its critics, as my colleague Sarah Mervosh reports: Almost all students made gains during the pandemic, just more slowly than usual, and the setbacks were not as significant as some had projected. More broadly, some education experts argue that test scores are a poor proxy for learning, which may have taken other forms during a year of upheaval.
But in any case, a large majority of parents expect their children to be back in school this year. The country has a strong economic interest in meeting that expectation, since many day care centers have not returned to normal operations, making it difficult for parents to return to a full-time job. And as Megan Cassella writes for Politico, “The barriers to returning to the labor force have proven particularly acute for mothers, who disproportionately shoulder caretaking responsibilities in the U.S. and who began taking on the added burden of helping kids through virtual school when schools were closed because of the pandemic.”
The Delta factor
New research suggests the Delta variant may cause more severe disease in adults, but it’s not yet known if the same holds true for children. The best assumption, The Times’s David Leonhardt wrote in June, seems to be that Delta will be modestly worse for children than earlier versions of the virus. “I haven’t seen data to make me particularly worried about Delta in kids,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, told him.
But not everyone is so sanguine. Even if Delta affects children no differently, it stands to reason that its increased contagiousness will lead to more infections. And while a vast majority of children recover from Covid within a week, recent research from Britain suggests that about 2 percent of infected children experience symptoms lasting eight weeks or longer. Long Covid remains poorly understood, as does the rarer inflammatory syndrome associated with Covid that has been reported in several thousand U.S. children.
“We need to stop comparing the severity of children’s illness to that of adults; it shouldn’t matter if adults are at greater risk if the illness among kids is itself a problem,” argues Leanna Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, in The Washington Post. “Covid-19 is now one of the leading causes of death among children. If the virus only affected children, there’s no doubt we’d clamor to do everything we could to prevent them from getting this disease.”
How to reopen schools safely
Schools can’t go back to normal operations, but they also need to be deliberate about which safety measures they employ, Tracy Beth Hoeg, Monica Gandhi and Daniel Johnson write in The Times. Some of the interventions embraced early on in the pandemic — temperature screenings, for example — are not effective. Others like plexiglass barriers and constant cleaning with antimicrobial products can even be actively harmful by interfering with student learning and fostering antimicrobial resistance.
So what should be done? Widespread coronavirus testing can be useful, but it’s expensive and could drain school districts of much-needed resources. Instead, Hoeg, Gandhi and Johnson argue that schools should rely primarily on universal indoor masking for children 5 and older. (In communities where hospitalization rates fall below five per 100,000 people and more than two-thirds of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, they say, the rules could be relaxed.) Some states currently experiencing major surges — including Florida, South Carolina and Texas — have made it harder to put such measures in place, but some schools there are proceeding nonetheless.
Ventilation is another crucial intervention: One study found that case rates were 48 percent lower in schools that combined better ventilation with air filtration. But the type of filtration matters: Some school districts are reportedly spending millions of dollars on unproven technologies that don’t get the job done and could even worsen air quality in classrooms.
Above all, widespread vaccination remains the best way to keep students safe. “As physicians who study infectious disease and epidemiology, we believe that the best way to prevent Covid-19 from spreading in schools is to vaccinate the adults — teachers, staff and parents — throughout the school,” Hoeg, Gandhi and Johnson write. “When more people in a community are protected against the coronavirus, unprotected people, such as the children who aren’t yet able to get vaccinated, are less likely to be exposed.”
Vaccine mandates for teachers have proved a predictably contentious issue. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York called this week for a vaccine mandate for teachers in high-risk areas, the state’s United Teachers union came out in opposition — a stance New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait condemned as “madness.” But on the whole, my colleague Noam Scheiber says, unions have been “extremely pro vaccine,” and around 90 percent of teachers nationwide are already vaccinated.
Perhaps the biggest battle to come, then, will be fought over vaccine mandates for students. Public support for such measures is growing, but still divided. While children 12 and older have been eligible for vaccination since May, only 43 percent of them have received their first dose. “Children have to get vaccinated for less urgent threats — and it works,” Riley Griffin and Suzi Ring write for Bloomberg. “So why not with Covid?”
It’s a question that’s likely to become even more salient as students return to class and as the Food and Drug Administration aims to approve the vaccines for younger children by winter. If schools can’t prevent outbreaks in the meantime, they may find themselves once again in the position of having to offer remote learning options. In Texas, where cases are surging, that’s already happening.
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Kids Are Going Back to School. How Do We Keep Them Safe?” [The New York Times]
“Chaos and confusion: Back to school turns ugly as Delta rages” [Politico]
“8-Year-Olds in Despair: The Mental Health Crisis Is Getting Younger” [The New York Times]
“When School Is Voluntary” [The New York Times]
“As Delta Variant Spreads, N.Y.C. Parents Worry About Coming School Year” [The New York Times]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what one reader had to say about the last debate: Can the unvaccinated be persuaded?
Eve, 65, from New York: “Another category of people refusing to get vaccinated are the white, educated, natural health, pro-naturopathic people, who are convinced that their superior immunity and eating organic vegetables will protect them from Covid. I know four people of this description, in my relatively small circle of friends.”
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