Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Omicron Could Make Other Winter Bugs Worse for Kids

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 26, 2022 3 min read
A man and child wearing face masks hold hands as they pass a line curving through the park for COVID-19 testing at a site at Farragut Square on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, just blocks from the White House in Washington.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Omicron shows signs of being the first variant of the COVID-19 pandemic to cause less severe illness than prior strains—for adults. But differences in this iteration of the virus are proving problematic for children, and compounding symptoms from other winter bugs that plague schools.

A new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compared COVID-19 illnesses driven by the most recent omicron variant with those driven by the delta strain this fall and alpha and other strains that were common during outbreaks last winter. While omicron has led to a rise in infections, adults have seen lower ratios of deaths, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations compared to infection rates, and those hospitalized with omicron have had shorter stays and lower risk of needing intensive care. That may suggest COVID-19 will finally follow the evolutionary trend of viruses becoming both more common and less severe over time.

The picture is muddier for those 17 and younger, though. While children and adolescents still comprise less than 15 percent of all COVID-related emergency room visits and little more than 4 percent of all hospitalizations from the coronavirus, both emergency visits and hospitalizations have risen faster for children than adults during omicron.

In part, omicron outbreaks and related hospital visits have spiked because children and adolescents continue to lag adults in getting vaccinated, leaving them more vulnerable to a more infectious strain. Omicron is proving twice as contagious as the delta strain—which itself is estimated to be 80 percent to 90 percent more transmissible than the alpha strain that dominated last winter.

That means a person infected with the most common virus causing COVID-19 in January 2021 infected about 3.5 other people on average, while someone infected with the most common strain this January could infect seven or more people. To put that in context, omicron is about as contagious as the mumps, and nearly six times more contagious than the seasonal flu.

But omicron also affects children differently than other strains, in ways that leave them more vulnerable to other seasonal bugs moving through schools now.

Schools should not neglect traditional health supports

In particular, more children are coming to emergency rooms seemingly for other illnesses—including seasonal illnesses like flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV—only to show underlying COVID-19 infections that complicate their recovery.

“Omicron variant appears to be harbored more frequently in the upper respiratory tract, and any virus with a preference for upper respiratory-tract inflammation causes more issues for children with smaller airways,” said Dr. Ibukun Kalu, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Duke University, who studies schools’ efforts to prevent outbreaks.

“We know all the protective mitigation protocols that were in place—masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, et cetera—actually did a lot in 2020 to decrease significantly the amount of respiratory disease that we were seeing from other viruses, whether it was flu, RSV, parainfluenza, and [the common cold],” said Dr. Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and a professor of pediatric infectious disease at Northwestern University. “Once these measures were relaxed, we really started to see increases in the number of viral infections caused by these other viruses.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended doctors couple flu and COVID-19 vaccines for children, in part because the two respiratory illnesses share so many symptoms among children, including: fever and chills; cough; shortness of breath; body aches; tiredness; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; and headaches. As of November, only about 1 in 3 children between 6 months to 17 years of age had been vaccinated against seasonal flu.

Kalu said many school districts she works with have responded to omicron-related outbreaks by socially distancing and encouraging students and staff to wear higher-quality masks, but only a few districts have increased broader vaccination drives that go beyond COVID-19.

Tan agreed, noting that while more school districts adopted systemic COVID-19 testing this school year, fewer schools nationwide have held “wellness days” for vaccinations and health screenings during the pandemic. She advised district leaders to ramp up school-based health supports, which research suggests boosts flu vaccination rates.

“People need to remember there are common viruses that continue to circulate besides coronavirus, and they could cause a significant number of kids to be sick,” Tan said.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Q&A How to Address Parents' Concerns That SEL Goes Against Their Values
A Texas instructional coach shares insights she has learned from talking with hesitant parents.
3 min read
Illustration concept of emotional intelligence, showing a woman balancing emotion control using her hand to balance smile and sad face icons.
Student Well-Being Pause Before You Post: A Social Media Guide for Educators in Tense Political Times
5 tips for educators and their students to avoid making harmful or false statements online that they later regret.
6 min read
Tight crop of a man's hands using a mobile phone with the popup box that reads "Delete post, Are you sure you want to delete this post? Cancel or Delete"
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion What Does the Dangerous Political Climate Mean for Schools?
Educators and researchers offer advice for navigating political polarization in the classroom.
5 min read
Grunge Collage styled urban graphic of US election
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Why Educators Need to Better Understand What Drives Kids' Cellphone Addictions
As more school and day-to-day tasks are completed on smartphones and computers, teens struggle to manage their screen time.
3 min read
Young man and woman without energy on giant phone screen with speech and heart icons above them. Addiction. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock