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Virtually every American child is back to school now, but already some have been forced back out due to school closures and shifts to remote learning as COVID-19 rips through schools.
Most outbreaks in Georgia, where a new record for hospitalizations was set last week, are now in the state’s schools, health officials said this week. Four Kansas school districts temporarily closed amid an outbreak at dozens of schools, as have schools in states all over the country. And in a repeat of last year, schools have been forced to go back to virtual learning, if only temporarily—one South Carolina middle school did so for two weeks because fully half of its students were in quarantine at the same time.
The outbreaks and campus closures underscore the growing consensus that the Delta variant of COVID-19, which became the dominant strain of the virus over the summer, spreads much more easily among the population than earlier strains did—even in kids. In just the two weeks ending September 9, there were nearly half a million new COVID cases among kids, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Georgia state epidemiologist Dr. Cherie Drenzek told a state public health board Tuesday that fully 60 percent of all COVID-19 outbreaks are taking place in the state’s schools, and clusters have appeared in more than a hundred schools throughout the state, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“There has been a tremendous impact on school-aged children over the past six weeks,” Drenzek told the board. Several Georgia school districts have temporarily closed or shifted to remote learning since school started last month; in the first few weeks of the school year alone, 14 school districts in the Atlanta area counted more than 24,000 cases.
Gov. Brian Kemp has said he’ll leave mask requirements up to school districts. More than half of Georgia students are now required to wear masks in schools, the AP reported in August.
Four children in Georgia also died of COVID-19 during the month of August, Drenzek said. At least one other child died in July. She also noted that many of the children who’ve been hospitalized were eligible to be vaccinated; in May, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in kids over the age of 12. Overall, 44 percent of Georgia’s population is fully vaccinated, lower than the national average.
There’s no evidence thus far that Delta is more deadly or serious than earlier strains of the virus. But because of its heightened transmissibility, it’s nonetheless stressed hospitals, particularly in states with low vaccination rates. In some places, that strain has been felt by pediatric hospitals as well.
It’s not just Georgia. Kansas education commissioner Randy Watson told the news nonprofit Kansas Reflector at least 31 schools have reported COVID-19 outbreaks in recent weeks, with the districts that have shut down closing for up to two weeks.
Most of the schools that have been forced to close do not require masking, according to Kansas Reflector. The schools did not shift to remote learning, as the Kansas legislature passed a law earlier this year capping remote learning hours at 40 hours per school year to any child enrolled in in-person learning. (Districts can apply for an extra 240 hours in some emergency situations.)
Other states that don’t have such a cap have shifted to remote learning. That’s the case in places that have been devastated by the Delta variant such as Alabama, South Carolina, and West Virginia—which now leads the country in case growth—and others that have been less so, such as Connecticut, where some schools have shifted to remote learning at least temporarily to stem outbreaks, according to the trade publication District Administration.
States and local governments have taken radically different approaches to dealing with the outbreaks. In some, such as Florida and Texas, Republican governors have prohibited local school boards from mandating masks, leading to what promises to be an expensive court battle over local control and public health.
And on the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Unified School District board—which has jurisdiction over the second-largest district in the country—mandated last week that all of its eligible students be fully vaccinated by the beginning of the spring semester in January.