How the Delta Variant — and Politics — Are Shaping School Reopenings
A year ago, the school closures and COVID-19 safety precautions implemented in the wake of the pandemic’s “first wave” directly affected almost all students. As the Delta variant surges across the U.S. and case numbers are once again rising, some experts see a troublingly familiar scene playing out. This time, however, not all students face the same health risks.
Many children over the age of 12 have now been vaccinated—though not nearly all of them. Safety measures like masking and social distancing have also become even more politically polarized. The result is a wildly uneven landscape: schools, depending on the ages of their students, their geography and their communities’ political tilt, are facing sharply different conditions as they attempt to reopen for in-person instruction.
“I think superintendents and their boards are having to pull together often disparate points of view, and then weigh that with evidence,” says Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, about school reopening strategies.
When it comes to the risk of COVID transmission in schools, the biggest change between this summer and last year is clear: access to vaccines for students who are 12 or older. That fact, coupled with the Delta variant— which has been shown to be more contagious among young children than the original virus—has flipped how education leaders have prioritized reopening, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.
“Last year, the priority for bringing children back to school in person was with the younger students, as opposed to the older students,” he says. “The situation has almost reversed because what we see now is that there is a vaccine for the older students, but there’s still no vaccine for the elementary age students.”
Masking and social distancing can help reduce transmission, but vaccines remain the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus, says Dr. Mario Ramirez, a physician and the managing director of Opportunity Labs, a nonprofit that works in education and health. Severe cases of coronavirus in children are uncommon, but they’re not unheard of, and kids can still pass the virus on to adults.
“The reasons that we need to vaccinate kids are not just for their own safety, it’s also for the safety of the entire herd,” says Ramirez. Although the CDC has not yet approved the vaccine for children under 12, Ramirez thinks extending access to younger students will likely be worth it.
Of course, even if everyone could be vaccinated, it seems unlikely that they would be. As of mid July, the majority of teenage minors hadn’t received even a single dose of the vaccine. According to Ramirez, eligible but unvaccinated children often live with adults who are also unvaccinated. And most states don’t allow minors to receive the vaccine without parental permission.
Easing Precautions in an Uneasy Year
These complications intersect with a broader trend towards reengaging young learners, specifically. Research suggests that elementary grade students were less likely to receive instruction and feedback than older students while studying remotely. They also likely faced steep social-emotional challenges.
“It was a difficult year for our students and we know coming in, they are going to need much more social-emotional support than in any typical year,” says Nashwa Mekky, principal of Howe Elementary School in Beach Park, Ill. “Last year, to a certain extent, was traumatic for a lot of our students. They didn’t socialize, they didn’t come to school.”
This year, her school is investing in more time and teacher training devoted to social-emotional development. They’re also working to ease some COVID precautions in accordance with state and federal guidelines, in an effort to reduce stress and try to help their students acclimate. It’s a trend Dusseault notes is increasingly common across the U.S.
Last year, the CDC advised schools to keep students six feet apart. This time around, that figure has dropped to three feet—a change that Mekky says makes a huge difference, especially for younger kids who can struggle with physical distancing.
“We couldn’t have all our children in the building, because we couldn’t maintain the six feet,” she says. “But this year, our priority is making sure all of our students are on site. And with the new guidance of three feet apart, when possible, that really enables us to bring all our kids back in the building. And for me, that’s huge.”
The pandemic also put a heavy academic and social-emotional toll on middle and high schoolers. But the transition to online learning may have been more intuitive, given their familiarity with the internet. On the other hand, younger kids had to undergo big transitions last year and will likely need to continue to adapt. As Mekky pointed out, when her school reopens on August 18, many of her incoming first graders will never have been in an in-person class.
Navigating the Political Landscape
While Dusseault notes that some schools have adopted new interventions, like investing stimulus funds into renovating H-VAC systems, national trends suggest schools are taking more of a traditional approach to fall reopening plans. And fewer, she says, are embracing mask mandates now than in the fall of 2020. That’s a change that Ramirez thinks could greatly add to transmission risk, especially given the more aggressive nature of the Delta variant.
The political landscapes of school districts also shape plans for the fall dramatically. Many states, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, have banned mask mandates and others have seen waves of protests against in-school COVID precautions. In crafting reopening plans for the fall, says Dusseault, district leaders often can’t ignore the political will of their communities.
“I think that they are also using stakeholder preference data, and you know in some areas of the country, [COVID safety measures] have become so politicized, that it is coming up in board meetings,” she says.
Last year, she noted, states with conservative governments were more likely to push for school reopening. Now that most schools plan to begin in-person classes, they’re pushing for more lenient safety restrictions.
To effectively protect both younger and older students, education leaders will have to find a way to overcome local community divisions and devise measures that keep their communities safe. That process won’t end this fall, and may still take years, Ramirez says. At this point, merging school recovery and COVID safety is a fundamental cultural challenge.
“In this country, we don't ask a lot from people in terms of your civic obligation, right?” says Ramirez. “This is a new experience, where people are essentially being asked to buy into the collective good. And there’s a surprising amount of resistance to that idea. But that’s really what a vaccination campaign is about.”