School & District Management

4 Ways to Keep Staff and Students Safe From the Delta Variant

By Catherine Gewertz — August 02, 2021 5 min read
Students and parents walk into school on the first day of school at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School on July 21, 2021, in Chula Vista, Calif.
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The timing couldn’t be worse: Just as schools reopen, a super-contagious COVID-19 variant, Delta, is infecting people nationwide at alarming rates. Unvaccinated people are particularly vulnerable, but even the inoculated can fall victim to this aggressive new strain.

It’s particularly important right now to use all the mitigation strategies you can to protect students and staff. But protecting them isn’t just about what you do; it’s about how you think. Here are four key things to consider.

1) Recognize that Delta demands greater protection

Some schools have been slow to see Delta for what it is: a new threat that requires stepped-up protections. Many are currently sticking with reopening plans that don’t include distance learning, for instance. Others aren’t requiring universal masking.

This variant is far more contagious than previous COVID-19 iterations, and is racing through populations more quickly. It is capable of causing breakthrough infections even in vaccinated people, though those cases are less likely to result in serious illness, hospitalization or death. New research shows that even vaccinated people can carry as much virus in their respiratory tracts as unvaccinated people, and can transmit it to others. These findings alone have significant implications for school reopening policies that allow some students or staff to go unmasked.

2) Be ready to pivot

When virus numbers were easing in recent months, many districts eliminated virtual learning options, believing it’s best—and was safe enough—for students to attend school in person. But with Delta driving new spikes, it’s likely schools will discover cases on campus and need to quarantine students or staff. They’ll have to have a way to keep instruction going.

Only days into the school year, scattered schools in Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi have already had to close because of outbreaks. Others have delayed the start of school.

Whichever form of pivoting a district embraces—quarantining some staff or students, switching to remote learning, delaying school—it’s clear that leaders need to be ready for whatever happens.

3) Know your community’s numbers

Vaccination and transmission rates vary from county to county across the country. The most dangerous combination is high community spread in an area with low vaccination rates. Know the numbers in your county, and design protection strategies accordingly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set thresholds for case rates and positive tests connoting low, moderate, substantial and high risks of transmission, but state or local health departments could set their own to guide decisions.

4) Use every form of protection available

Schools have many powerful weapons at their disposal to keep students and safe from COVID-19, but not all are equally available to all schools. Some states have banned local mask mandates, for instance. The trick is to deploy as many tactics as you can.

Vaccination is one of the best ways to keep COVID at bay, but legal questions about requiring it are inhibiting schools. Denver is one of the few districts so far to require vaccination for K-12 employees, and that came in an order from the mayor Aug. 2. Nebraska’s Santee Community school district also requires vaccinations, because of an order by the Santee Sioux Tribal Council. Other districts are waiting until the vaccines have full authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently, they’re available under a less-rigorous “emergency use” authorization.

A few districts, including New York City, are starting to deal with this by giving staff an option: either they show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing.

Others are using incentives, like bonus payments, to persuade the reluctant to get the jab. Schools are also increasingly embracing their historic roles as trusted sources of public health information, and reaching out to their communities to allay concerns about vaccination. The Biden administration has also called on schools to host pop-up vaccine clinics.

Because most schools aren’t requiring vaccines, they must rely on layers of other mitigation strategies to keep people safe. Social distancing, to the extent possible, good ventilation, and a lot of hand-washing will help. Requiring COVID-19 testing is another strategy that could gain ground. Los Angeles Unified has mandated weekly testing for students and staff who return in person. Detroit will require weekly testing for unvaccinated staff members.

Universal masking is one of the most potent weapons against the coronavirus. But it’s also one of the most contested, and that has put many schools at a disadvantage. Community opposition, or outright bans on mask mandates—in place in eight states, as of Aug. 1, according to tracking firm Burbio—have taken mask requirements off the table as a protective strategy in thousands of schools.

Where mask mandates are banned, some school leaders are using their very-visible roles to encourage voluntary mask-wearing. Arizona banned mask requirements, but one district feels so strongly about the protection they offer that it’s defying the state and requiring masks anyway. The Broward County, Fla., school system, too, is defying its state’s mask-mandate ban, an executive order signed July 30 by Gov. Rick DeSantis.

Some states appear to be headed in a more mask-friendly direction. Arkansas’ governor reportedly plans to call a special session of the legislature to review the state’s ban on mask requirements. Oregon’s governor has called on the state education department to require masking in K-12 schools. And Nevada’s governor issued an emergency order requiring masks indoors for most people.

Where districts have a choice about masking, some are starting to reverse course, reinstating mask requirements when before they were optional. Some districts that hadn’t planned to offer virtual learning are reversing those decisions, too. Jefferson County, Ky., and Stockton, Calif., are among those that announced new online options in the past week.

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