School & District Management

Fighting the Delta Variant: School Reopening Just Got a Lot More Complicated

By Catherine Gewertz — July 28, 2021 8 min read
Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, center, joins with students at Lehman High School for a roundtable discussion about the COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in New York.
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With every passing day, a perfect storm is taking shape that could undercut this year’s safe reopening of schools across the country. As students and staff stream back into buildings, schools must battle a highly contagious new form of COVID-19, and many will wage that battle with one hand tied behind their backs, unable to take advantage of all the safety strategies available to them.

A tangle of state or district rules, legal questions, and community pushback has limited the power of many principals and superintendents to require the two most powerful forms of protection against the virus: masks and vaccines. Another protective strategy—distance—has been undercut, too, since many districts have eliminated virtual learning options in an optimistic bid to provide high-quality instruction.

From the perches where experts monitor how well schools are prepared to manage the coronavirus, the picture grows darker daily. It’s a stunning turnabout from only weeks ago, when low virus numbers fueled faith that children and teachers could return to their classrooms.

“Realistically, schools will have a problem reopening fully and staying open continuously this fall,” Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which tracks schools’ reopening strategies, tweeted last week. “This is not fear-mongering. This is a likely scenario that must be planned for. We are not seeing such plans. Déjà vu.”

There are signs this week that suggest a growing recognition of the need to redouble safety protocols in schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said July 9 that only unvaccinated staff and students need to wear masks in schools, reversed course 18 days later, and now advises—along with the American Academy of Pediatrics—that all students and staff mask up, regardless of vaccination status.

Two districts in Texas, Austin and Round Rock, announced this week that they’re reinstating virtual learning options, in part because elementary-age children are not yet eligible for vaccines.

That’s the landscape on which schools are planning their fall reopenings. With the Delta variant capable of racing through populations and causing infections even among the vaccinated, the terrain is more daunting than ever.

And it shape-shifts by the moment, as each state and district makes its own rules about masking. According to the tracking firm Burbio, only 2 in 10 K-12 students live in states that require masks in schools, and nearly that many attend schools in the seven states that forbid mask mandates. More than half of the country’s students live in states that let districts decide whether to require masks.

“It’s a very hard time right now. We’re sitting on the threshold of a decision point about what to do about masking in many places,” said Benjamin Linas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University. “We know for sure that kids don’t get severe COVID, but they can be infected and can transmit it.”

Vaccination rates vary wildly

The country is a crazy quilt of vaccination patterns, too, leaving hundreds of communities—and those who flow into their schools—particularly vulnerable to the virus. Children younger than 12 are unvaccinated, and among those 12 to 17, who can get the vaccine, only about 36 percent have done so.

Nationally, 60 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. In some counties, fewer than 20 percent of people are vaccinated.

Sonja O’Leary, the chair of the panel that issued masking guidance for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said a key reason for their universal masking recommendation was the wildly varying rates of vaccination.

“It’s really hard to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t now,” she said. “If 95 percent of kids were vaccinated, that would be a different thing. But right now, it seems safer to start the year masked.”

States have well-established authority to require vaccines for school attendance, but that authority is less clear with the COVID vaccine, since it has only emergency-use approval from federal authorities. A new court ruling, which affirmed Indiana University’s right to require students to be vaccinated, might help states considering requiring the vaccine in K-12. But as of now, none have taken that step, and seven states, according to CNN, have forbidden making the COVID-19 vaccine an attendance requirement.

Similarly, education-law scholars have noted that the law is unclear on whether K-12 schools or districts could add the COVID-19 vaccine to their states’ list of required inoculations. A couple of districts have ventured into that territory with a distinctly chilly reception. Los Angeles Unified announced in January that vaccines would be required this fall, but reversed course after a group of district employees filed suit.

New York City this week announced staff and students must be vaccinated or COVID-tested weekly, but city unions aren’t signing on. A handful of districts say they plan to institute a vaccination requirement once the vaccines get full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

‘It’s taking me back to where I was last fall’

Education Week asked principals and district superintendents in seven states about their reopening plans. Some are coping with more limitations on their safety strategies than others.

Emilie Knisley, the superintendent of the East Orange Supervisory Union district, which serves 1,800 students on the Eastern edge of Vermont, has something powerful going for her in her bid to keep everyone safe: 71 percent of those 12 and older in her county have been vaccinated. Local superintendents have not yet decided whether to require masks, but Knisley feels confident about handling the ever-changing dynamics in her district.

“Compared to last August, we’ve done a total redesign of how we do school,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot. We went to remote for a period of time. We quarantined. We know how to do this.”

Utah has banned local mask mandates, so Rae Garrison, the principal of West Jordan Middle School, just south of Salt Lake City, is feeling uneasy as she prepares to welcome her 1,200 7th, 8th, and 9th graders back to school Aug. 16.

Social distancing is challenging with an average of 30 kids per class, and principals have been told they can’t ask which of their students and staff are vaccinated because doing so might make some feel unwelcome in school, Garrison said.

“It’s taking me back to where I was last fall, really nervous, the worst,” she said. “We’re going to have to rely heavily on contact tracing, which is a full-time job for my vice principals. We’re going to have to quarantine students who don’t want to be quarantined, and do [simultaneous] online and in-person [instruction], which is the last thing my teachers want to be doing.”

Cynthia Lamkin oversees Otken Elementary, a K-3 school in southern Mississippi, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. And she’s in a district that’s not offering virtual learning options this fall.

But Lamkin’s district does require masks, and she believes that, in combination with hand-washing, social distancing where possible, and lots of cleaning, will keep her school population as safe as possible.

“Nothing is 100 percent,” she said. “We’re going to do all the things we did last spring. It worked for us. We didn’t have a lot of cases.”

To enforce a mask mandate, or not?

California requires schools to enforce a mask mandate, and offer independent-study options, including virtual learning, for those students who can’t or won’t mask. But school leaders are juggling a host of conflicting questions as they plan for reopening.

Tom O’Malley, the superintendent of Modoc Joint Unified, a small, rural district on the Oregon border, said his community’s vaccination rate is only about 40 percent, but families there will not tolerate a mask requirement. His five schools stayed open last year and people masked up, but students and staff still got sick, usually from parents or other off-campus adults.

“Our families saw that our kids wore masks all year long and it didn’t matter. People still got it,” O’Malley said. “I’m not going to kick a kid off campus if they show up without a mask.”

Helio Brasil sees things differently. The superintendent of Keyes Union, a small K-12 district in California’s agricultural Central Valley, will enforce the state’s mask mandate. His liability insurance carrier told him “flat-out” that if he doesn’t, it won’t cover claims arising from COVID-19, Brasil said. That could expose the district to expenses that could hamper his ability to serve his students, he said.

“I am feeling caged and frustrated,” Brasil said. “If a kid comes to school without a mask, do we call law enforcement? Every decision has legal repercussions. I feel I have no choice but to enforce it. But how will this go over with my parents?”

Many school and district leaders said they feel they can’t ask which students and staff members have been vaccinated, because they’d violate privacy rules or create an unwelcoming environment. Legal experts say individual inquiries aren’t advisable, but getting an aggregate sense of people’s vaccination status—through an anonymous survey, for instance—could yield valuable insights that could inform schools’ strategies.

Educators universally said they’d be uneasy cohorting students by vaccination status, something the CDC specifically warned against in its guidance. But some said they might consider creating options for staff or students who—for whatever reason—aren’t comfortable in group settings.

Paul Kelly, the principal of Elk Grove High School in Illinois, anticipates a mixed bag of masked and unmasked, vaccinated and unvaccinated students when school reopens. Illinois had embraced the CDC’s July 9 guidance that only unvaccinated people need to wear masks, and his district isn’t offering a virtual option.

Since he won’t know how much of his school community is vaccinated, Kelly is considering creating safe places for those who feel vulnerable—either because they’re unvaccinated, at high risk for COVID-19, or can’t wear masks for various reasons.

In assemblies or in the cafeteria, for instance, he might create zones where 6 feet of social distancing is guaranteed, and allow students and staff to choose them if they’re more comfortable. Likewise, a staff member who is uneasy in a face-to-face group meeting might be able to Zoom in from a nearby classroom, Kelly said.

None of this is set in stone yet. Everything around him keeps changing, and he’s figuring out how to handle the shifting picture. Even without a fully formed strategy in place yet, Kelly knows that one thing will be crucial to getting through the year.

“We’re going to need trusting relationships between staff and students to make this work,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as Fighting the Delta Variant: School Reopening Just Got a Lot More Complicated

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