The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Will COVID Delta Variant Keep Schools Closed?

A student returns to New York City’s public schools for in-person learning at P.S. 506 in Brooklyn, N.Y., December 7, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On the menu today: While much of the conservative world is up in arms about schools teaching kids critical race theory, there’s another fight brewing behind the scenes over whether schools really will open up in autumn as scheduled, or whether nervous teachers and their unions will point to the ‘Delta variant’ of SARS-CoV-2 as a reason to continue distance learning until every child can be vaccinated. Also, an examination of why the Delta variant really isn’t that much to worry about, if you’re fully vaccinated, and why polling questions about infrastructure may not really give the full picture on voters’ attitudes.

The Coming War to Reopen Schools in the Fall

The good news is that the National Education Association has rejected a proposal to require “mandatory safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations and testing for all students and staff before returning to face-to-face instruction in the fall.”

The vaccine is currently available to children twelve and over. Pfizer plans to request emergency authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages five to eleven in “September or October.” Pfizer’s emergency-use authorization for using the vaccine on teenagers was submitted on April 9 and received approval on May 10, so it seems reasonable to assume that the FDA will take about a month to review the testing data before offering an EUA for younger children.

If school districts had adopted the NEA position that “no in-person schooling should occur until every student is vaccinated,” then kids wouldn’t be returning to the classroom until late fall or early December — and that’s just for the kids whose parents chose to get them vaccinated. And remember, it takes two shots of Pfizer, three to four weeks apart, to become fully vaccinated.

The bad news is that we’re starting to hear the first rumblings that public schools may not be able to fully reopen because of the Delta variant.

In Buchanan County, Mo., two summer-school programs shifted to online-only classes “after an outbreak of COVID-19 took over half of the students out of class. The Delta variant is sweeping through low-vaccinated communities like Buchanan County, which is reporting that only 26 percent of residents have one dose of the vaccine.”

In Illinois, 47 school superintendents wrote to the Illinois State Board of Education “demanding further guidance on how schools can safely reopen,” contending that they can’t reopen for all students while maintaining social-distancing and quarantining protocols. Elgin, Ill., superintendent Tony Sanders told the local Daily Herald that some schools might start the school year in remote learning for secondary students “until such time [as] we could comply” with the protocols.

In central California, Dr. Rais Vohra, the health officer for the Fresno County Department of Public Health, cautiously warned in an interview with the local ABC affiliate that, “If the Delta variant becomes dominant as it’s predicted to do, this might actually have some implications for school age children and how we recommend different activities for different types of education settings like schools.”

By June 7 — the end of the school year in most districts — just one percent of the country’s 8,500 public-school districts were entirely online-only, 45 percent were hybrids of some kind, and 54 percent were fully in-person. It would be painfully illustrative if, after a summer of even more vaccinations of adults and teenagers, somehow the country backslid on those figures and had fewer kids in classrooms in autumn.

It will probably not surprise you to learn that Republican-leaning states were quicker to reopen schools, and Democratic-leaning ones kept them closed for longer. The end result, according to a CDC report that is making some educators uncomfortable, is that on average, minority students were stuck with subpar distance learning for longer periods:

During January–April 2021, access to full-time in-person learning for non-Hispanic White students increased by 36.6 percentage points (from 38 percent to 74.6 percent), compared with 31.1 percentage points for non-Hispanic Black students (from 32.3 percent to 63.4 percent), 23.0 percentage points for Hispanic students (from 35.9 percent to 58.9 percent) and 30.6 percentage points for students of other races/ethnicities (from 26.3 percent to 56.9 percent).

Elected officials who kept schools closed for longer periods, insisting that the extended closures were what was best for the children, were inflicting the most serious harm. Amidst a national awakening on systemic racial injustice, elected officials defended policies that harmed the education of minority students the most, ensuring that racial minorities would pay the greatest price for the pandemic in the long term. Some of those students may not be coming back, and some parents may not be interested in having their children return. A study from the University of Southern California indicated that “30 percent of Black parents and 18 percent of Hispanic parents surveyed from mid-May through June 22 are planning for remote instruction or are unsure about returning to school for fall, compared with 12 percent of White and Asian parents.”

In fact, school officials are finding themselves in the unexpected position of having to sell parents on the benefits of in-person schooling:

In Florida, the superintendent of the state’s largest district is knocking on doors to talk up the benefits of face-to-face instruction. In Topeka, Kansas, school officials are traveling around neighborhoods hosting mobile vaccination clinics, where they deliver shots alongside reminders about the effectiveness in-person schooling. In Virginia, a principal visited the homes of 50 of her remote learners to assuage their fears about in-person schooling next semester.

And in the San Antonio Independent School District, superintendent Pedro Martinez has for weeks sent out every available member of his staff, from social workers to central office personnel, to chat with the roughly 20 percent of families who indicated they’d like to remain virtual next school year. San Antonio will offer remote learning in the 2020-2021 school year — unlike some states and districts, which are ditching that option entirely — but Martinez is hoping he can convince most families to forgo it.

The contention in that NEA proposal, that we cannot reopen schools until we’ve vaccinated all the kindergarteners, is an asinine position that would greatly exacerbate the greatest setback to children’s education in American history. But one of the hard lessons of this pandemic is that our fellow citizens’ ability to assess risks varies a great deal.

The silver lining of COVID-19 is that children’s respiratory systems are less vulnerable to this virus, and/or their immune systems are better at fighting it off. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children. . . . In states reporting, 0 percent to 0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.”

So How Bad Is Delta? The Virus, I Mean, Not the Airline

The bad news is that the Delta variant is, as one professor put it, “the most hypertransmissible, contagious version of the virus we’ve seen to date.” The good news is that two doses of the Pfizer, Oxford/AstraZeneca, or Moderna vaccine offer high levels of protection against that variant. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine generates “strong, persistent activity against the rapidly spreading Delta variant and other highly prevalent SARS-CoV-2 viral variants.”

If you’re fully vaccinated, you’re about as protected as you can get and should go about your life — keeping in mind that the vaccine protects you from bad scenarios such as getting really sick or requiring hospitalization or dying — but not necessarily from catching the virus at all.

This morning, a lot of people are intensely concerned about a new study out of Israel reporting that the Pfizer vaccine protected just 64 percent of inoculated people from infection during an outbreak of the Delta variant. They’re paying less attention to the fact that same study found that the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective at preventing severe illness. To hear some people tell it, Israel is in the middle of a terrible outbreak . . . with an average of 325 new cases a day, about 2,900 active cases, no deaths since June 10, and only 35 deaths since early May. Yes, Israeli infections are up, but hospitalizations and deaths remain low.

This weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that 99.2 percent of the COVID-19 deaths are of unvaccinated individuals.

ADDENDUM: Our Phil Klein looks closely at the polling numbers and observes that infrastructure spending is generally popular, but not a particularly motivating issue for voters.

People may like the idea of spending more money on infrastructure when asked (especially when tradeoffs of massive spending aren’t included in the questions), but if not asked directly, they aren’t exactly clamoring for Congress to address the issue, let alone to elevate it above all others.

There is also a lesson here for Republicans who see the polling on infrastructure and may feel inclined to support the exorbitant infrastructure package. There is no reason to feel compelled to do so. There is no major constituency that would drive anybody out of office for voting against an infrastructure bill.

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