Parents Wonder How Safe New School Year Will Be as Delta Variant Surges 

After over a year of virtual learning, the idea of “normal school” this fall might be exciting but also terrifying for parents across the nation. Especially as Covid-19 cases are on the rise again.

The way classrooms are expected to look this fall is ever changing because of lagging vaccination numbers and the aggressive Delta variance of the virus making its way through the U.S. 

Starting in the next few weeks, about 56 million students in grades K-12 will return to the classroom full-time.

To safely keep schools open, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended “a layered mitigation strategy” that involves several interventions to mitigate the risk of catching coronavirus.  This includes investment in improved ventilation using federal Covid relief funds and keeping students at home when they are having any possible symptoms of Covid-19. The strategy also advises mask wearing indoors for unvaccinated students and teachers.

The CDC has emphasized that indoor masking is important for unvaccinated people, as they are still at high risk for getting and transmitting the virus. According to the CDC, over 86% of people over age 75 are fully vaccinated but alarmingly only nearly 25% of children ages 12-15 and 37% of young people 16-17 are.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered the age of people eligible to receive the vaccine from 16 to 12 this past May, citing evidence from clinical trials that the two doses were safe and effective in kids in preventing the symptoms caused by COVID-19. 

Many parents may be wondering what would happen if the CDC recommended procedures are not enforced? The Delta variant leaves unvaccinated children especially vulnerable.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted earlier this month that 7 minors had been hospitalized because of Delta infections in Mississippi, and 2 of them went on ventilators. The earlier strains of COVID-19 were less transmissible and did not infect children to the extent that the Delta variant has.

There are at least seven states that are not allowing schools to implement mask mandates. According to the school tracker Burbio, schools in Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, Vermont and South Carolina can only recommend masks to unvaccinated staff and students but not enforce it. 

CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, has spoken to CNN about the CDC’s guidelines and many of the concerns parents are now facing. 

When asked if the guidelines are enough to keep students, teachers, staff and their families safe, Dr. Wen said, “Yes. At this point, we have plenty of data that schools can be very safe from a Covid-19 transmission standpoint if mitigation measures are followed. The CDC has been very thoughtful in its guidance, which cites numerous scientific articles to explain its strategic approach.”

CNN asked about the risk to children under 12 if teachers are unvaccinated and not masking.

Dr. Wen responded, “They are not supposed to be doing that, but I think this question is getting at the problem that the CDC is not offering any guidance for how to verify vaccination status. For many schools, it will probably be an honor code, and if teachers are not wearing masks, there is no way to know whether it’s because they’re vaccinated and following the guidance, or if they’re unvaccinated and defying the guidance.”

“Whenever layers of mitigation are removed, they should be replaced by other layers. If there are unvaccinated, unmasked teachers around, this does add risk. The risk can be reduced if that teacher is regularly tested and keeps a good distance away from students, but ideally, this situation does not occur in the first place,” she added.

CNN additionally addressed that children are now making up more than 1 in 5 new coronavirus infections.

“The Delta variant is the most contagious variant we have seen, which may mean that unvaccinated children are more likely to transmit and to get infected with this variant than before. It’s not clear that children become more ill — and we need to keep in mind that in general, children with Covid-19 infections tend to get much less severely ill than adults. However, children can have long-term consequences from Covid-19 that last months or potentially even years,” Dr. Wen remarked.

For parents who are wondering if it is okay for their vaccinated teenager to not wear asks at school or at after-school activities, Dr. Wen answered, “You should follow the regulations and the norms of your school. Some schools might still require masks, because they are not asking for proof of vaccination. Others might have such high vaccination rates that every kid in a classroom is vaccinated; in that case, it’s definitely safe for your vaccinated child to go without a mask. If your child is not vaccinated, though, he should be wearing a mask in indoor spaces.”

She further said, “I’d definitely make sure that you monitor what your child is doing after school. It would be a shame to follow strict Covid-19 protocols during school, only to engage in high-risk activities outside of the classroom that add unnecessary risk to your child and your family. The rule of thumb is that if your vaccinated child is around other vaccinated kids, there is extremely low risk, and they can engage with one another without masks, distancing or other coronavirus restrictions. The risk becomes a little higher every time there are unvaccinated people in the group. And if your child is unvaccinated, they really shouldn’t be indoors with other unvaccinated individuals without masks.”

It is expected that vaccines for children under 12 may be available later this fall, with elementary-age children likely becoming eligible first and then toddlers and babies.

Children have lost so much because of the pandemic and giving them back a normal school life is a priority for many parents. The hope is that many schools will adhere to the CDC guidelines and carry out routine testing. 

President Joe Biden has designated $10 billion in federal money so schools can test students and staff. Under the program, states are required to report back how many tests are used and how many turn up positive. School districts in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago are planning to reopen with routine surveillance testing for students. 

“Our nation’s top public health scientists are recommending that school districts consider adding screening programs into their overall strategy for protecting their kids and their staff from outbreaks of COVID and the administration is supporting that recommendation with this testing program,” said Tom Inglesby, a senior COVID-19 response adviser at HHS.