As children return to school in the coming weeks, it is increasingly clear it will not be the return to normal that many people had envisioned at the beginning of this summer.
The transmissibility of the delta variant of the coronavirus – one infected person can infect up to seven people – and the fact that kids younger than 12 remain unvaccinated, mean school systems may have to update their COVID-19 mitigation measures developed for reopening in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021.
On Aug. 5, the CDC released updated guidelines to schools for reopening plans, due to the delta variant, that include prioritizing in-person learning, vaccination for all eligible staff and students, universal masking of students, staff and visitors, physical distancing of students in classrooms by at least 3 feet, regular testing to screen for asymptomatic infection, improvements in ventilation and disinfection of surfaces in schools. (The CDC guidelines are recommendations, not requirements.)
However, what schools are planning to do in the face of the variant is unclear to many teachers, parents, and school health providers, according to panelists who spoke at an Aug. 11 Association of Health Care Journalists webinar.
“I continue to be stunned, frankly, by the number of our [teachers] that aren’t sure what their school’s plan is,” said Daaiyah Bilal-Threats, senior advisor for strategic initiatives at the National Education Association, which represents 3 million teachers, during the webcast. “It has not been clearly communicated with them, even after all this time.”
Robin Cogan, a school nurse with the Camden City School District and Dr. Tina Tan, a pediatrician at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, also spoke during the webcast.
Much of the media attention about school reopening has focused on masks and the battle in some communities to block schools from requiring them. All three agreed that mask-wearing is crucial to keep children safe in school and prevent spread between unvaccinated children and adults with underlying health conditions who may be susceptible to contracting COVID-19, even if they are vaccinated.
In seven states — Arizona, Florida, Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah – governors have banned mask mandates in schools, which school nurse Cogan said made her feel “demoralized” because it handcuffs health providers in schools and leaves them without a key tool from preventing illness in kids.
“We have the tools to keep kids safe, so to take those tools away from us, what is the point of that? Is the point to hurt people? Is the point to send children into the hospital?” Cogan said. “Because that’s what is exactly going to happen. How do you function in a system that is intentionally inflicting harm on the children and the staff?”
Since masking is the best way for to reduce transmission, Tan suggested students wear cloth masks with two or more layers instead of an N95, which is not the best mask for children.
The droplets that most people generate in a community setting are large, so a two-ply or higher cloth mask, probably works as well as an N95, she said.
“That’s what I recommend because it’s more comfortable and it’s breathable,” Tan said. “You want children to be comfortable, so they keep their mask on for the majority of the day.”
Beyond masking, the panelists urged journalists to ask school systems about their specific COVID-19 plans for the coming year and whether they have an organized COVID-19 task force that includes school administrators, teachers, parents, and someone from the public health department to help them respond to a potential outbreak of the delta variant in schools.
To help public schools implement these plans, Congress provided $122 billion through the American Rescue Act, that could be spent by school systems for ventilation, disinfection, testing and other mitigation measures. Bilal-Threats said reporters can find stories by asking school systems how they are spending that money.
Other story ideas for reporters include:
- How does your school system plan to handle school sports, which can become super- spreading events? How does it plan to handle travel teams that put kids in close contact of each other?
- How is your school going to handle school lunches? If kids are sitting together with masks off and eating, lunchtime can become high risk. If kids are eating in cohorts and in classrooms, there is a risk to students with food allergies. How does the school plan to handle this?
- What is your school system’s plans for testing staff and students? Who will be conducting the tests?
- What is the ventilation system in your school?
- How is your school planning to handle mental health challenges in the coming year? About 40,000 kids have lost a parent to COVID-19 in the past year, so what are schools doing for grieving students?
- Find ways to highlight new voices in your stories. For example, how are students and families of color feeling about returning to in person learning this year? How are rural communities handling the return to school? What is happening to the school systems in Native American communities?