Nearly a year has passed since schools across the country began shuttering their doors to protect students, educators, and their families from Covid-19. Since then, many parents juggling work and schooling duties have incurred more stress while making less money; a high percentage of kids are suffering psychologically and losing their motivation to learn; and nearly a third of teachers across the US are contemplating leaving the profession altogether, so exhausted are they from the combined toll of continuous safety concerns, longer hours, and inadequate administrative support.
Given all this, it is understandable that most of the country’s 3,000-plus school districts see the current drop in new Covid-19 cases, as well as recent reports from CDC officials that affirm the success of safety protocols in reducing transmission in schools, as an opportunity to not only resume limited in-person learning but also accelerate plans to expand it come the 2021-22 school year. But if they want to keep schools safe, they’ll have to include a new factor in their calculations—the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Researchers estimate that the first variant to enter the spotlight, B.1.1.7, initially surfaced in September 2020. By December it became the dominant strain, and as of this writing it has been detected in nearly 80 countries. Many others have emerged since, each more transmissible, more immune-evasive, and in some cases more deadly than its predecessors. Most of the discussion on variants to date has revolved around their potential to impact the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, many of which were developed using technologies specific to the first strain of the virus that originated in Wuhan, China. While vaccine developers are already reconfiguring their pipelines to allow for the possibility of more viral variation, other public health interventions we’ve relied on to contain the pandemic thus far remain to be recalculated—especially those we implement in schools.
Until now, parents and educators took great comfort in the fact that children are less likely to catch and get sick from Covid-19 than adults. But in Italy and Israel, where the UK variant made landfall last year, health authorities are witnessing an uptick in spread among children and teens far greater than any recorded in their first or second waves. According to a study published earlier this month in BMJ, more than 50,000 school-age Israelis were confirmed to have Covid-19 in January alone. Meanwhile in Italy, the northern village of Corzano, population 1,400, has recently experienced an outbreak that infected at least 10 percent of residents. More than half—60 percent—of these cases were children who went on to infect other members of their household.
Not for nothing, the number of Covid-19 cases recorded at colleges and universities across the US has gone up 31 percent since last year, with more than 120,000 confirmed since January 1. As is the case with primary and secondary schools, these universities have been in a state of complete or partial closure since March of last year. The spike in infections makes it clear that attempts to move forward with a more robust reopening have been complicated by the new variants, which arrived just in time for the spring semester.
The concern isn’t just that kids who catch a more evolved and contagious form of the virus will spread it to their teachers and family members. The more children get infected with Covid-19, the more they’ll develop a rare condition known as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C. This mysterious inflammatory syndrome, which has appeared in more than 2,000 pediatric Covid-19 cases in the US so far, can start out causing fever, red eyes, and digestive problems but lead to heart dysfunction and even death. In the first two weeks of February, the number of MIS-C cases documented in Los Angeles County shot up 35 percent. Though we can only speculate why, the increase may have something to do with B.1.427/B.1.429, a highly contagious variant that began circulating in Southern California in November and is now present in at least 45 states.
If the new SARS-CoV-2 variants are as capable of spreading amongst school-age children as the BMJ report suggests, any return to in-person learning cannot be accompanied by slackened safety measures. On the contrary, vigilance will have to be at an all-time high—a difficult thing to ask, given the level of pandemic fatigue that has set in for most, but a necessity if we want to protect our children from a condition that has already taken 30 young lives. Vaccinating teachers isn’t enough. Upon reopening, schools must ramp up safety measures and keep them at full tilt, especially in places where community spread has yet to be contained. In addition to mandating masks and, if possible, face shields, temperature checks, frequent handwashing, and continuous social distancing must be rigorously enforced. To proactively detect and prevent contagion, a testing program comparable to the one being piloted in Austria, which provides free home tests to families, should be implemented. Hybrid learning options that combine remote and in-person education, allowing parents maximum flexibility and plenty of leeway to self-isolate if they suspect their kids have been exposed to Covid-19, should also be maintained, as well as longer quarantine periods for students and educators who test positive just to be safe.
And parents, if you’re lucky enough have the luxury of being able to keep your children at home at little cost to them or yourselves, think long and hard about whether sending them back to school is the right thing to do. For some students, in-person learning is a matter of preference. But for others, it is a matter of survival.