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Will U.S. Schools See a Rise in Covid-19 Infections?

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have significantly decreased, with many feeling that the pandemic has become an endemic; the constant presence of a disease that has reached a point where it is no longer unpredictably troublesome. However, media reports have warned the public that it may be reacting too soon, and another COVID-19 wave may be on the horizon.

The concern of another COVID-19 surge comes as many states are seeing an uptick in cases. According to the LA Times, after weeks of steady decline, COVID-19 cases are rising in Los Angeles County K-12 schools. Public health director, Barbara Ferrer, reported that an outbreak at a high school, fueled by the highly contagious BA.2 variant, “involved 12 students and is linked to 60 cases in that school. Among K-12 campuses, “that’s one of the largest outbreaks we’ve ever had at a school since the beginning of the pandemic,” Ferrer said. She believes these numbers are troubling especially when only “31% of LA County children ages 5 to 11 have completed their primary vaccination series.” COVID-19 cases are also rising at universities in California with one University of California (UC) hospital in San Francisco reporting a 7% increase in positive COVID-19 cases.

California is not alone. Massachusetts public school districts are seeing slightly higher positive case rates for the fourth consecutive week. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported a 14% increase in positive COVID-19 infections among students. COVID-19 cases are also increasing in New York City (NYC). According to The New York Times, Hunter College Elementary School saw a 500% increase in COVID-19 infections in seven days, from only four cases the week of March 12, to 24 cases the week of March 19, 2022. In Delaware, the Radnor County School District has also seen a spike in COVID-19 cases and has opted to switch to a virtual day of learning on April 18 when classes resume after spring break, Delaware County Daily Times reported.

Health experts believe that the combination of the BA.2 variant and recently lifted indoor mask mandates are fueling new COVID-19 infections. As the United States attempts to get back to pre-pandemic normalcy, navigating COVID-19 has become a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. Parents and children are experiencing “pandemic fatigue.” The desire to follow COVID-19 restrictions is decreasing, and after two years of living in a pandemic, many still feel frustrated and exhausted. Dr. Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees. He attests that during the pandemic, some of the smallest decisions that people were forced to make, carried anxiety and tremendous weight. “As the pandemic progressed, most people became more comfortable with some decisions but less comfortable with others. For many, these decisions have felt like giving away bits and pieces of their life,” Yeager said.

Many can agree that the pandemic chipped away at the mental health and well-being of some Americans. In schools, parents with children under 5 years old, who are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, worried that they could possibly become infected while some in other states protested mask mandates. Although the end of the mask mandate in schools is positive for eager parents and children who have wanted to do away with masks, doctors warn that the relaxed guideline will lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases.  If history does repeat itself, we will likely see an uptick of COVID-19 positive cases in schools. Just under one year ago, in May 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask or stay six feet away from others in most settings. Two months later, CDC reversed its indoor mask policy, stating fully vaccinated people should put them back on. The reversal came as the United States witnessed a surge in the delta variant. If cases start to dramatically rise again, how should schools react? 

AM’s school COVID support teams believe that school districts will need to prepare now logistically and psychologically for the possibility of reimposing COVID-19 mitigation measures once again, especially managing expectations among faculty, staff, students, parents and the local community for any possibility.

Reimposing testing, tracking, social distancing and masking will be politically and socially sensitive, but schools must be prepared for the evolving challenges and demands that COVID-19 is placing on our society. School communities must remain realistic, vigilant, and proactive. Schools should also anticipate a rise in COVID-19 cases due to increased travel, relaxing of the mask mandate, and upcoming holidays where people will be gathering with friends and families in large settings. The good news is that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still relatively low in most states. The reality is that the pandemic is not over and positive cases are inching back up at some schools. North Carolina State University professor, Dr. Julie Swann, who has tracked models throughout the pandemic, believes that we are likely to see an upward shift in COVID-19 infections. “Everybody wants to be done with the pandemic. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can’t just wish it away. And right now, most schools do not have masks, many workplaces do not as well. And so that is also an increase in risk compared to what we might have had a couple of months ago,” Swann explained. 

While we don’t know if the rise in COVID-19 infections will significantly impact school-aged children or how long they will have to ride on the COVID “merry-go-round,” AM analysts will continue to bring you the latest COVID-19 trends and updates. 

 

Some strategies for limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools are:

  • Weekly COVID-19 testing and daily tracking
  • Vaccinations and boosters for eligible children
  • Comprehensive communications system to alert parents and children of active COVID-19 cases
  • Social distancing
  • Hand hygiene
  • Daily sanitizing of high-touch surfaces
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