Will the delta COVID variant get in the way of schools reopening in the fall?

delta variant schools
Photo via Dan Gaken/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Nearly a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 50% of the adult population in the United States has been fully vaccinated against the virus. But as the next school year looms, the large number of unvaccinated Americans may pose a problem, particularly as the delta COVID variant continues its rapid spread. Will the large number of unvaccinated people, paired with the highly transmissible delta variant, get in the way of schools reopening this fall?

The delta COVID variant is known to be more contagious than the original strain of the virus. Children under the age of 12 remain ineligible for a vaccine, and that could lead to dangerous conditions in schools this fall, particularly if large swathes of students aren’t wearing masks. The delta variant does not appear to be more dangerous for kids, when it comes to symptoms and health risks, but it is likely to spread more rapidly through their ranks.

As noted by Danny Benjamin, chairman of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trials Network, many children suffer no symptoms from COVID or its variants, and “mortality in the 5 to 17-year-old bracket is extremely low with COVID. We’re talking on the order of two per 100,000.”

The staffs that spend their days at schools are not so lucky, however. And while children are less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, they can spread the virus. Some children also suffer from lasting symptoms after a COVID infection, which could affect them for years post-recovery. 

The delta variant has already prompted some states and businesses to reinstate mask mandates, a precautionary measure that may become necessary at schools. In communities with high vaccination rates, this may be avoidable, but in states with particularly low vaccination rates—like Mississippi and Alabama—mask requirements may become a must. 

In areas where much of the population is vaccinated and cautious, Benjamin believes school reopenings should be a smooth, and safe, process. In other areas, however, “where I’m in a school setting where the majority of the humans in the building are not vaccinated and not masked, then I can anticipate with the delta variant a pretty substantial increase in transmission,” Benjamin says.

He has a few recommendations for schools in this situation, including “to focus on ventilation, to focus on testing, to have people outside as much as possible, and to look at some of the other mitigation strategies.”

These strategies are important to bear in mind, particularly considering concerns from many experts over the importance of students returning to school. 

“Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority,” guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. Most education professionals seem to agree, so long as schools can be cautious and consistent when it comes to reopening strategies. 

As of late July 2021, though, the CDC has not recommended mask mandates for unvaccinated students returning to schools.

Sources: Bloomberg, Yahoo!, PBS, Education Week, CDC

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