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The Delta variant is throwing a wrench in back-to-school plans across the U.S.

August 19, 2021, 3:47 PM UTC

The Delta variant has dashed hopes for a return-to-normal school year across the U.S., with students facing delays, switches to virtual education, quarantines and mask requirements.

In Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, thousands of schoolchildren and teachers are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Districts in Kentucky and Georgia have shuffled opening plans, while others in Indiana and South Carolina have switched to remote learning. 

The challenges offer a preview for some of the country’s largest districts that are opening in the coming weeks, keeping parents in suspense over whether they’ll be able to return to a regular workday themselves. A further complicating factor in the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, particularly among the unvaccinated, is that kids under 12 remain ineligible for inoculation in the U.S.

“This situation is not under the kind of control that we thought we had gotten back in July,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “We’re going to be going back to the same kind of process that districts went through last year, and the shame of it is that it’s not necessary.”

In Florida, the latest epicenter of the U.S. Delta surge, boards for two of the state’s largest school districts voted Wednesday to defy Governor Ron DeSantis and require masks for students. Hillsborough County, whose district includes Tampa, began school last week and already has more than 10,000 students—about 5% of the total—in isolation or quarantine because of exposure to COVID. Miami-Dade, with 334,000 students, begins classes next week.

For the week ending Aug. 12, children represented 18% of U.S. cases, compared with 14.4% of the total since the pandemic began, according to data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. Cumulative child cases have jumped 9.1% since the the start of July, slightly faster than the overall population’s growth of 7.5%. 

Healthy children are generally at low risk of severe illness from COVID, but data on youth infection is lacking, and it’s not well understood what risk Delta might pose to unvaccinated or vulnerable members of their families. 

“This variant is much more contagious, and it is affecting kids differently,” said Trevor Jones, superintendent of Scott County School District 1 in southern Indiana. 

The district opened Aug. 3 and expected a fairly normal return. Last year, it only had to close once around the holidays, and had about 47 total cases among children. 

Things were different with Delta. Within the first week of school, more than 30 students tested positive of about 1,250 on campus. That forced 42% of the student body into quarantine. On Aug. 10th, the district announced it would be virtual until at least Aug. 23. 

“It’s hard right now because the rest of society is not wearing masks,” Jones said. “We can put them in quarantine and we can send them home, but we don’t know what they’re doing once they get there.”

Last year, masks were mandatory in school if children couldn’t keep six feet (1.83 meters) apart. This year school began with a mask optional policy, but when schools reopen, they’ll be mandatory again, Jones said. 

About face

Indiana lets districts decide their own mask policies. Governor Eric Holcomb this week voiced support for those that are imposing rules, unlike his Republican counterparts in Texas and Florida who have prohibited mandates. President Joe Biden on Wednesday directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to take steps such as possible legal action to counter those governors.

In Kentucky, Carter County Schools delayed the first day by more than a week amid rising cases, according to a Facebook post. George County School District in Mississippi transitioned to virtual, effective Tuesday, after 20% of students and staff were either positive or quarantined. 

The School District of Pickens County in South Carolina will move to virtual for the week ended Aug. 20. It has 634 students under quarantine, 142 positive cases and 4 employees and a student has been hospitalized in the last month.

Los Angeles Unified School District reopened Monday, while Chicago Public Schools return Aug. 30, both with teacher vaccine mandates and mask requirements for both staff and students. LAUSD, the nation’s second-largest school district, is also requiring weekly COVID tests, with baseline results between Aug. 2-15 revealing a positivity rate of less than 1% for students and employees.

New York City, with 1.1 million students, was the first major public school system in the U.S. to resume in-person education last fall. Even then, the majority of its students opted for remote learning. Mayor Bill De Blasio has eliminated that option for the upcoming school year, but is facing pressure from some parents to restore it.

New York City schools reopen on Sept. 13. Parents are being urged to vaccinate their eligible children, while teachers are required to be vaccinated or get tested regularly. 

Even as Delta cases rise, it’s still rare for children to develop serious illness after contracting COVID. A study in the medical journal The Lancet found the most common symptoms among about 1,700 school-aged kids who caught Covid were headache and fatigue, and illness generally lasted about six days.

Still, a study out of Canada published this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested young children may be more likely to transmit infection compared with older children, specifically babies and toddlers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks are most effective at preventing transmission when everyone wears them.

As of Aug. 14, mask requirements were in place in 51.5% of the 200 largest school districts, according to the Burbio school tracker. Half of the districts had virtual options.

In Ware County, Georgia, schools shut down on Aug. 13, less than two weeks after classes began. The 6,000-student district reported 94 kids and 54 staff with COVID. Officials closed instruction outright because not all students had been issued Chromebooks, and some staff were too sick to teach virtually.

“We believe COVID will be part of the fabric of school planning and operations for years to come,” said Paige Coker, director of special projects for the district. “School ‘as we knew it’ has changed forever.”

—With assistance from Skylar Woodhouse, Jonathan Levin, Michael Smith and Henry Goldman.

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