The delta variant is becoming the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. and many schools are taking the increase into account when planning for a safe opening in the fall.
“The delta variation is the most recent variation of the virus, it's more contagious which means it spreads more easily among people who are more vulnerable to the virus,” Dr. Reginald Washington, the Chief Medical Officer of the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, said.
COVID-19 restrictions are loosening and more people are getting vaccinated, but the U.S. is still seeing cases of COVID-19, and more and more of those cases are the delta variant.
Data from the CDC show the delta variant represented 0.1% of cases in the U.S. in early April. As of early June, it jumped to 9.5%.
“It’s infecting people who are vulnerable to it, mostly people who are not vaccinated,” Dr. Washington said.
Right now, kids under 12 are one of the biggest concerns for medical professionals because they don’t even have the option to get vaccinated.
“The vulnerable population are the children who are not protected at the moment, so there is a concern that when kids go back to school and they're vulnerable to this variation of the COVID virus, they are more likely to get sick and they are passing it on not only to their classmates but to adults that are not vaccinated,” Dr. Washington explained.
As schools prepare for fall, they are experiencing a little bit of deja-vu.
“So the summer of 2020 was very busy for us, we spent a lot of time in planning meetings,” said Theresa Myers, the Chief of Communications at Greeley-Evans School District 6, outside Denver.
“The variants have been coming at us since COVID started, the delta variant is just the latest in the variants,” she said.
Last summer, schools spent a lot of time figuring out how to educate kids with COVID-19 cases spiking, lockdowns in place, and no vaccine available.
“Fast forward to 12 months later, there are some things that we know much better than we did last summer,” Michael Ramirez, the Deputy Superintendent of Schools at Denver Public Schools, said.
He said the ability of schools to reopen correlates directly with vaccination rates.
“We are moving forward with bringing students back in person, but being really thoughtful around what that may look like and monitoring the data very closely,” he said.
Myers said her district is taking into account the positivity rates.
“We are still seeing quite a decline in the number of cases. What that’s going to mean come August, we just don't know yet. We’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode with that,” Myers said.
They are also considering what community members have to say.
“We have people who are very much wanting us to completely do away with all of the protocols and go back to whatever normal is or whatever a typical school day would look like. We have others who have children who are at high risk, who have family members who are high risk,” she said.
Each school is going to handle things differently - based on positivity rates, vaccination rates, community feedback, and local health suggestions.
“As we saw with this last school year, different communities made different decisions for their school districts,” Dr. Erin Seedorf, an assistant professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said.
As a public health expert, Dr. Seedorf said parents can expect to see a variety of solutions based on the community.
“I think unfortunately it's not a simple answer. There's so many different variables that are going into play and, of course, this summer looks very different than it did last summer,” she said.
Dr. Washington said health officials hope to have the vaccine available to kids under 12 by late fall, but that isn’t set in stone.
“Until people get either vaccinated or get the COVID, it’s still going to be around in our communities,” Dr. Washington said.
For now, schools are doing what they can to keep kids learning, and safe.
“COVID I think is here to stay, at least for a while. What we want to do is really focus on education and getting kids who need to be caught up, caught up,” Myers said.