Student Well-Being

A New School Year, a New COVID-19 Variant. What Are Schools to Do?

By Arianna Prothero — August 18, 2023 4 min read
African American elementary teacher blowing nose of young culturally diverse elementary school boy during a class in the classroom.
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School is starting, a new COVID-19 variant is circulating, and cases are rising. These circumstances have become all too familiar to educators and families.

But what does it mean for schools now, when major national and international health agencies have declared the health emergency over, if not the pandemic?

Many Americans have moved on from taking pandemic-related precautions and are, frankly, sick of them. At the same time, educators are feeling pressure to catch kids up academically as student achievement continues to lag after the pandemic severely interrupted their learning.

In a sign of how much schools’ approaches to the pandemic have changed, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which for much of the pandemic had some of the strictest COVID-19 safety policies, has eased its recommendations for when students should stay home.

The district, which is trying to reduce high rates of chronic absenteeism, told parents this week that they can send their children to school even if they have a mild cold or cough. District officials say students should still stay home, though, if they have a fever or test positive for COVID-19.

LAUSD, America’s second largest school district, may also relax its rules requiring employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Los Angeles Times. That requirement, the paper reports, led to the departures of 700 employees at a time when districts nationwide were struggling to fill positions.

A new variant—technically a subvariant of omicron officially classified as EG.5 and colloquially called “Eris”—has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States and has been categorized by the World Health Organization as a “variant of interest.” The subvariant might be more contagious than previous mutations of the virus, but it appears to still only cause mild illness in most cases. In a public health announcement, the WHO described the public health risk caused by EG.5 as low based on the data the organization has seen.

Likely fueled by the new strain, COVID-19 cases are also rising, based on wastewater surveillance and hospitalization numbers, the latter of which still remain far below previous peaks in January and last summer.

How schools should approach COVID-19 safety as school starts

While health officials are now treating COVID as a disease like the common cold or flu, that doesn’t mean that school officials and families shouldn’t continue to take some precautions, said Kate King, the president of the National Association of School Nurses.

“The first thing that schools need to do, and school nurses are a key point of communication in this, is make sure that they contact their local health department before school starts to know what they are seeing in terms of cases locally, in terms of hospitalizations locally, or deaths,” she said, “and look to them on the guidance on what schools should look for in terms of symptom management and anything related to COVID.”

Schools should continue to emphasize basic tried-and-true hygienic practices, said King.

“We want to go back to what we called during COVID ‘mitigation strategies,’ but they’re ‘always’ strategies,” said King. Those include “hand washing, making sure to cover coughs and sneezes, hydrating, good nutrition, and good sleep, those simple things. But doing all of that is what can keep us all healthy, safe, and ready to learn.”

The last time COVID-19 surged, in January 2023, some districts went so far as to temporarily require students to mask or test negative with an at-home COVID-19 test before returning to school.

While we’ve come a long way from 2020 when a runny nose could get a student quickly sent home to take a COVID test, it’s still true that some sick students are better off at home.

In fact, schools should encourage families to keep their kids home if they have symptoms of more severe illness, said King. Even though schools might be feeling a lot of pressure to have kids in the classroom and learning as much as possible, it’s still best for everyone for a sick kid to stay home.

If higher attendance is what schools are after, said King, encouraging sniffling and coughing children to come to school might be counterproductive.

“The risk you’re taking of transmitting that disease so that more children are out sick, or that child does not recover as fast and it therefore affects their learning … may actually come back to haunt you later because more of your staff and students get ill,” she said.

Vaccines, of course, remain the strongest tool for preventing COVID-19, especially the more severe outcomes from the disease.

While many educators got vaccinated at least initially when shots became available, vaccination rates among children—especially the youngest—have lagged significantly behind those of adults.

Educators are a highly vaccinated group. A survey in 2021 from the EdWeek Research Center found that about 87 percent of teachers had received the vaccine. A May 2022 survey by the EdWeek Research Center found that 7 in 10 teachers, principals, and district leaders had gotten a COVID-19 booster shot.

Nationally COVID-19 vaccination rates among school-age children have stalled, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. As of May, around 33 percent of 5- to 11-year-old children had completed the two-dose COVID vaccine series while 62 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated.
An updated version of the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots that are specific to more recent strains of the virus should be available for children and adults by October.

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