We are in the last days before the students return to schools across the country. Yet the rhetoric from many government leaders around reopening schools has been like so many others linked to COVID-19: clumsy, often more emotional than scientific and presented as certain. But little is certain.
We are facing an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant. In fact, in counties where the majority of adults chose not to be vaccinated, we are seeing infection rates that have eclipsed previous records and hospitals in those areas are nearing capacity. In these areas, the rapid transmission of the delta variant can lead to subsequent and more dangerous variants that can endanger the health and economic recovery of the rest of the country, if not the world.
Much has changed since claims that schools will revert to pre-pandemic form were first made in the spring.. First, the delta variant is now ubiquitous. It’s extremely transmissible – at least 50 percent more than the alpha variant that fueled our winter peak. Second, children are infected more frequently than at any other time. What hasn’t changed is that our “leaders” haven’t stopped politicizing COVID-19 – but now our children are at increased risk.
Based on data from last school year, most K-12 schools that were functioning to some extent before the Delta have had at least one class sent home to quarantine following the announcement. that one of their students had tested positive. In the spring, some schools reverted to blended education after almost a year online. Schools and school systems that could afford it implemented testing protocols, screening for symptoms and exposure, and enforcing masks and physical distancing guidelines.
These steps should have been seen as a warm-up exercise for what would be needed in most school districts over the coming school year – given a more contagious strain of COVID-19 and the increased number of children. 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 action to protect our children, divisive politicians have sent the message that children must be unmasked to be happy or to learn. On the contrary, the data clearly indicates that masking, especially in the early years of primary school, is not a problem for most children. They comply. It is the adults who make a political statement.
With a “post-pandemic” mindset prevailing in many places, more children have engaged in group activities since the introduction of the 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, especially in counties with low vaccination rates and where masks continue to be used more as a political statement than a public health measure to save lives.
Sadly, we are heading 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, has succumbed to the disease. There is no reason for this. Every school should require masking of its students and vaccination of all 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 risk of infection.
Where are the adults who take responsibility for protecting our children? Our “leaders” continue to fail in the most basic means to protect their most vulnerable citizens. Some have chosen to be vaccinated in secret, some appear to actively spread misinformation about the vaccine and the effects of the disease, and some argue that masking children is detrimental to their happiness and education. The only thing we are sure of is that COVID-19 is a new virus and while there are some basic infectious disease principles that we rely on, there are things to learn when you are dealing with it. a new situation.
Humility is needed, both on the part of scientists and policy makers. Civility is needed from the adults who set the tone for the country and our children. While there are still many uncertainties, one thing is certain: our children look to adults to protect them from harm and to develop policies that protect them while they learn. It is time for our leaders to become the responsible adults our children need.
Amira A. Roess, Ph.D., MPH, is an epidemiologist specializing in the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases. She is a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University and was an epidemic intelligence officer at the CDC.