By international benchmarks, the latest wave of the pandemic has disrupted schools as much as last winter’s high-water mark, and still has not crested.
World Health Organization officials warned Thursday that in the last seven days, infection rates have jumped by 71 percent worldwide—and doubled in the Americas—driven by the combined spread of the Delta and Omicron variants. Among children 11 and younger, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds infection rates in the United States alone are now higher than they were at this time last year, with more than 278 cases for every 100,000 children ages 5-11 and nearly 286 infections among those under 5. Infection rates for teenagers are nearing their all-time highs, too, ranging from 330 to 426 per 100,000 adolescents.
The rapid spread has started to overwhelm schools both in the United States and abroad. By the most recent estimates from UNESCO, the current pandemic wave has led to education disruptions affecting nearly 37.7 million children worldwide—about 2.4 percent of all students enrolled—and shuttered schools nationwide in six countries, including Uganda, Belize, and the Philippines.
In the United States, closures and moves to virtual learning are affecting more than 58.5 million as of Jan. 6, UNESCO finds, meaning about as many American pre-k-12 students are experiencing disruptions now as at this time last January, during the height of the last pandemic wave.
So far, however, fewer countries have opted for full or partial closure or remote learning for their schools in response to Omicron and Delta, the two most common variants in the current wave of infections, even though those variants are significantly more contagious than the strains circulating last winter. At that time, school disruptions affected more than 104 million learners worldwide.
Late Thursday, the CDC changed its pandemic mitigation guidelines for schools to recommend shorter quarantine and isolation periods, aligning with the five-day periods it recommended for the broader public in December. (People isolate if they have tested positive for COVID-19, while they quarantine if they have been exposed to the virus but have not yet determined whether they have been infected.) However, Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, warned that depending on the strain and the person, COVID-19 “has a very wide range of incubation periods: Some people can take a day or two to develop symptoms. Some people can take up to 14 days or beyond, but the vast majority of people will develop disease within five or six days of their last exposure to the virus.”
Because of that, leaders and policymakers should weigh the benefits of shorter and longer quarantine and isolation periods against other social and economic factors, such as the severity of community outbreaks and the capacity of teachers and health-care workers to adapt.
Both the WHO and the CDC also recommend that schools provide more support to help students become vaccinated. Because Omicron and Delta variants are associated with higher risk of breakthrough infections among those who have already been vaccinated, the CDC on Thursday recommended that adolescents ages 12-17 get a third, booster shot of the vaccine. However, fewer than 54 percent of U.S. teenagers in that age range have completed the first two shots of the vaccination series so far.
Dr. Maria Van Kerhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, also stressed that public habits around mitigation have relaxed over the years, and education is needed to refresh people on how to use strategies like masking and social distancing effectively.
For example, while many school districts do require universal masking, “When you put a mask on your face,” Kerhove said, “you need to have clean hands [and] it needs to cover your nose and your mouth. Wearing a mask below your nose, wearing a mask off of your ear, wearing a mask below your chin is useless, and it gives you a false sense of security that you have something on that is protecting [you]. It will not.”
There is some good news. Dr. Janet Diaz, who leads the World Health Organization’s clinical management response for COVID-19, said emerging data suggests that Omicron does seem to cause less severe illness than Delta. “When we actually look at the stratification of younger people versus older people,” she said, “we are seeing that that reduced risk of hospitalization and the reduced risk of severity is seen with the younger people and with children, as well as with older people.”
However, Diaz noted that the new variants so far seem equally dangerous for children with existing health issues—such as asthma, which affects more than 8 percent of school-age children in the United States.