It's Back to School Season
Here's what we can do to protect kids in the next few months.
Welcome to Not a Doctor, the only newsletter about health and science that is trying really, really hard not to make a decorative gourd season joke right now.
I’m Melody Schreiber, a journalist and the editor of What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, or really an expert of any kind. I just like to ask questions and try to find the answers to them.
I am very sorry that it’s been so long since my last post, but everything… you know. Yeah. It’s been a lot!
But now it is September 2021 somehow, and my kid is in school! Yay! That means the pandemic is over, right? Haha! Hahaha! That’s what passes for humor around here these days. I’m sorry about that, too.
So, with fall crisping the air and the joyterror of releasing my only child into a room full of unvaccinated people still coursing through my veins, I wanted to talk today about kids and school.
First of all, though: I am not at all interested in judging your personal decision about sending or not sending your kid(s) to school. This was an absolutely impossible “choice” that plagued me for most of the summer, and there were absolutely no good options, and you are doing the very best you can do for your family, no matter what you decided.
I also, clearly, do not have all of the answers. But I hope this helps you feel a little better about your decision, whatever it was, and helps inform your future choices as we navigate this crisis.
Most of the links in this newsletter go to stories I’ve published about kids, schools, and Covid, if you’re interested in learning more.
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Wait, Kids Can Get Covid?
If you already knew that: please skip to the next section! Your anxiety doesn’t need the reminder!
If not: yes, they can. We often don’t even know when kids were sick — which is good news for the kids, bad news in terms of their ability to spread the virus, and also bad news in terms of tracking any long-term symptoms. That’s why frequent testing is a really good idea!
[You Might Not Know If Your Kid Has Covid-19]
Now, with Delta, it’s not clear if kids are getting sicker. Adults are twice as likely to be hospitalized with Delta versus the Alpha variant, a new study from the UK shows. But it may simply be that Delta is so wickedly more contagious, more kids are getting sick and thus showing symptoms.
But they’re definitely getting sick. In the first week of September, kids accounted for 25 percent of new cases. Since we had more than 1 million cases that week (!), that means kids had about 252,000 cases (!!) in a single week (!!!).
[Covid Cases Among Children Are Surging in the US as Students Head Back to School]
Now, with cases across the country beginning to decline (YES!), that number is lower, but kids still account for more than one in four new cases.
In places with very good precautions in place, however, cases among kids are lower. As Dr. Mary Caserta told me, “We’re going through a different part of the pandemic, but we have to rely on what we know works.”
Let’s talk about what works.
(Photo: Ivan Radic)
What Schools Can Do
When I reported on this more than a year ago, lol, the advice was pretty much the same as it is now: implement universal mask policies, institute frequent testing, improve ventilation (and go outside whenever possible), contact trace, and provide support for kids and staff to stay home when someone is sick or has come into contact with someone who has Covid.
[Here’s What It Would Take to Reopen Schools Safely]
All of that still applies. Sadly, implementing it has been much, much harder. Somehow, even in our third school year into a pandemic, schools still haven’t gotten enough resources or prioritization.
And the Delta variant has changed the game a bit. Dr. Amy Falk, who cowrote one of the major reports earlier this year on what schools can do to educate kids safely during the pandemic, is a lot more worried about Delta transmission in schools — but most of those fears are around the schools that are charging ahead with few or no precautions, thinking everything will be fine because last year was fine.
“We’re dealing with essentially a completely different virus than we were last school year,” Falk said. “It is just frightfully more infectious.”
[Education Is Set Up to Fail in the Pandemic]
But — but!!! — when schools do implement some or all of these precautions, they have been successful. One model found that 90 percent of students could get sick by the end of the year—but 80 percent of those cases would be prevented by masks and testing alone. That’s not even counting other measures, like cohorting, contact tracing, improving ventilation and eating outdoors, and so on.
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And Don’t Forget About the Jab
There’s one more tool in our toolbox now, and it’s a major one: VACCINES.
As terrifying as it is to contemplate school in the age of Delta (and Mu, and Gamma, and whatever else is next), the knowledge that many adults and kids over the age of 12 are vaccinated is extremely comforting.
This is not the same situation we faced a year ago, no matter how Groundhog’s Day it feels sometimes.
If a teacher is vaccinated, we don’t have to worry about our children giving them a deadly virus that might not only shut down class but could also tragically claim lives. If our kids are already vaccinated, we can breathe a little sigh of relief that they will be well-protected even if they have breakthrough cases. If parents and grandparents are vaccinated, we worry far less about our kids bringing bad cases of Covid home to us.
(Those who are immune-compromised are a major exception for all of these cases, and this is why additional Covid shots, precautions like masks and tests, and virtual learning options are so important!)
For those of us with under-12 kids, who will not sleep fully until vaccines for younger kids are authorized… I feel you! This sucks!!!! But vaccines will be here soon — as early as Halloween for 5-11s and Thanksgiving for 2-4s. We just have to hold out until then. And we have to keep other precautions in place, since vaccines cannot do it all.
[He’s Starting School at Home, But I’m Just Happy He’s Here]
I don’t mean to downplay the risks at all. I am deeply concerned about school outbreaks before vaccines are available to all (and even after that). But I’m also hopeful that many of the measures proven to work — masks, ventilation, tests — plus the major addition of vaccines will keep many students safe this year.
For instance, high vaccination rates among those who are eligible can help suppress the spread of Covid among children who are not. Although hospitalization rates for children climbed from June to August, they were lower in states with higher vaccination uptake, a new CDC report found.
I know there are districts that are still reopening without these precautions, and to the parents in those places: I am so so sorry. Especially in those cases, I absolutely understand when parents choose to homeschool — but I also understand that’s not an option for everyone, and I grieve the fact that we don’t have better choices.
I hope, however, that as we come to a better understanding of what works, schools across the country will understand the importance of protecting kids and staff alike.
There are also several long-term benefits to the changes some schools have made — improving ancient HVAC systems, offering mental health support to those who have suffered disproportionately in the past few months, helping students focus and perform better in school. Such changes will, hopefully, chart a new course to a more equitable, safe, effective education system.
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Do you have any questions about precautions your school is (or isn’t) taking? How are you feeling now that that school year is in full swing?
Leave a comment below! Or, as always, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any thoughts you’d rather not share publicly. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram, if you’re so inclined.
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