So far, U.S. schools have largely avoided widescale outbreaks during the pandemic, but three new—and potentially more transmissable—strains of the coronavirus may change that equation.
As of Jan. 8, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 63 cases of B117, the COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom late last year. It has reached California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas.
To date, there have been no U.S. cases of two other new mutations identified this month: B.1.351 identified in South Africa, and B.1.1.248, identified in Japan, but all three new variants have sparked significant outbreaks and, because of the potential rapid spread among children, school lockdowns in other countries.
Here’s what educators need to know.
What’s different about these new COVID-19 strains?
All three of the mutations involve small changes to the proteins which the virus uses to bind to cells, the little halo of spikes that gives all coronaviruses their name.
There’s some evidence that these changes can increase the overall viral load in an infected person, which increases the volume of the virus expelled when that person speaks or coughs.
Tina Tan, professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and an infectious diseases physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said higher viral loads under new strains are likely to lead to a greater risk of so-called “super-spreader” events, if an infected person is in close quarters with a large group of people without masks and social distancing.
The United Kingdom’s New and Emerging Respiratory Threats Advisory Group found the U.K. mutation’s infection rate is 67 percent to 75 percent higher than the original strain. The World Health Organization reports the South African variant has 40 percent to 90 percent higher infection rate. (It’s not yet clear how infectious the Japan strain is, but it seems similarly more contagious than the standard strain.)
However, the new strains may not be more virulent. “Viruses are constantly mutating, but … it’s kind of a give-and-take thing,” Tan said. “If you develop something to make yourself more transmissible, you have to take away from something else. So if you look at a new variant of the coronavirus, it seems to be more transmissible, but it doesn’t cause more severe disease or more deaths.”
Will this change the likelihood of school-related coronavirus outbreaks?
A report from the British government’s Children’s Task and Finish Group found that children ages 2 to 16 in that country were twice as likely to pass on the virus than adults, and 12- to 16-year-olds were seven times more likely than those over 16 to be the first person in their household to test positive for the virus. Tan noted that some research suggests these infected children tend to have higher viral loads than adults, even when they do not show symptoms.
“The way that the U.K. scientists found out that this [new strain] seems to be transmitted more easily in children, is that at the time when this variant appeared, there weren’t a lot of other venues open except for schools,” Tan said. “That’s when they saw that there was much more transmission among children.”
The British task group report noted that teachers have not shown a disproportionate infection rate compared to other adults during the first part of fall, but as in the United States, high schools have seen more outbreaks than lower schools.
It’s not yet known how susceptible children are to the new strains identified in Japan and South Africa.
How should school and district leaders make decisions about in-school learning in light of these new variants?
The rate of community spread of COVID-19 remains the primary benchmark that school and district administrators use to decide whether to move from in-person to hybrid or remote learning. Because these new strains are more contagious, a lower level of community spread may put in-person schools at risk of an outbreak, but so far there has been no consensus on what levels of community spread are safe for in-person classes.
“In-person learning definitely is better than e-learning for all students, but as the situation changes, I really think that administrators need to be very vigilant about monitoring what’s going on and make decisions to keep their teachers and their students safe,” Tan said.
However, administrators will have a difficult time getting real-time information on the new strains in their community. Rapid-response COVID-19 tests used in most communities do not distinguish among different strains of the virus, and likewise few health departments besides the CDC separately track the cases of new strains of the coronavirus.
For the time being, experts recommend that district administrators watch not just the total community infection rates, which are available from most state health departments, but also sudden jumps in the number of cases or hospitalizations, which could signal the introduction of a new, more contagious strain of the virus.
And basic health precautions continue to significantly reduce the likelihood of coronavirus outbreaks in schools.
“What we are still recommending from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that the appropriate control measures around physical distance and face coverings can be very effective strategies that control the spread even of these new strains,” said Nathaniel Beers, the president of the HSC Health Care System and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who helped develop the academy’s guidance for schools on COVID-19. “And so I continue to strongly recommend those strategies that schools would work towards implementing to ensure that students can be safely returned to in-person instruction.”
Will vaccines developed for the original COVID-19 protect against these new strains?
At this point, it’s not clear how effective vaccines and other treatments will be against the new strains of COVID-19. Tan said the vaccines act against multiple parts of the virus, not just the part of the binding site that has mutated, and she argued that teachers should continue to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as vaccines become available.
One not-yet-peer-reviewed study found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showed effects against the U.K. and South African mutations. A separate study suggested antibody serums, a common treatment for those who have already been infected with the virus, could be less effective against the South African strain. Both the new strains and the vaccines themselves are too new for significant research to have been completed.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Will New COVID-19 Strains Mean More Cases in Schools?