After a year of virtual school, students and parents alike were excited for the return of in-person learning. But just as quickly as the new school year started, many children were sent back home after a slew of COVID-19 outbreaks forced them into quarantine.
In Florida, school districts around the state, including in Jacksonville's Duval County, are closing schools as cases rise. New Orleans School District saw 299 active COVID-19 cases and more than 3,000 students and staff in quarantine, according to district data. A Mississippi public health official said about 20,000 students across the state are in quarantine.
School outbreaks caused by high community transmission and lack of mitigation measures have not only disrupted academic plans, health experts say, but also may be contributing to a spike in COVID-19 cases among children across the country. They worry cases will continue to rise if schools don't implement masking and other basic prevention measures, and adults in the community remain unvaccinated.
"As you look at the age specific cases over the past couple of weeks, the reason why we’re seeing a pronounced difference between school-aged children and everybody else is primarily because they're back in schools full time," said Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.
The school delays and shutdowns in Florida, where executive orders signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis banned mask and vaccine mandates, has personally impacted Salemi, whose 3-year-old daughter has only attended three out of the 12 days of school.
While overall COVID-19 cases in Florida appear to be stabilizing, he said, pediatric cases continue to rise.
During the week that ended Aug. 13, overall cases in the state fell 1% from the previous week, but cases in 12- to 19-year-olds increased by 16%, and children under 12 increased by 21%, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases in all other age groups fell by 3% to 7% or stayed the same from the previous week.
“We are starting to plateau in cases at a very high number and even starting to see signs we may be coming down,” Salemi said. “But the message is not the same for everyone.”
School mask, vaccine mandates:Which states have them? Do they work?
Nationally, child cases have more than quadrupled in the past month, rising from 38,000 cases during the week that ended July 22, to 180,000 during the week that ended Aug. 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, reaching levels not seen since the 2020-2021 winter surge.
Children represent more than 22% of weekly reported COVID-19 cases and up to 3.6% of hospitalizations, the academy reported.
The numbers are fueling parents’ anxiety about sending their children back to school, but health experts stress it’s not the schools themselves that are driving up cases.
"It's the fact that people are not adhering to mitigation methods,” said Dr. Andi Shane, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“In Georgia, we’ve been back in school for at least three weeks now and in those counties and school districts where there’s masking and vaccination, we’re not seeing many cases,."
Controlling pediatric cases is not only dictated by what’s happening in schools, Shane said, but also by community transmission. Most children are infected by an adult in the community or household and then bring the virus to school where unvaccinated children are susceptible.
Shane urges everyone to get vaccinated to protect children under 12, who may not be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine until midfall or later. Pfizer-BioNTech has said its study in children ages 5 to 11 should be completed early this fall, and in younger children early next year.
Moderna began its trials several months after Pfizer-BioNTech, so results will come sometime later, though the company has not released a detailed timetable.
COVID-19 vaccines for little kids:When are they coming? What you need to know.
“A lot (of pediatric cases) is due to those children not being eligible for vaccination along with the combination of people around them not being vaccinated as well,” Shane said. “It’s not only about approval, it’s also uptake and getting more immunity in our population.”
Although most states in the U.S. don’t have mask mandates, she says it’s still important to send children to school for in-person classes. Parents can protect their kids by normalizing mitigation measures at home to take with them to school.
This may include explaining the importance of wearing masks even if friends aren’t, teaching how and when to use hand hygiene, sending them to school with hand sanitizer, showing them how to be distant from people who may have symptoms, and making sure they tell adults if they feel sick during the day so they don’t create opportunities for COVID-19 transmission.
“Kids are really great, and they follow directions really well,” Shane said. “It’s about trying to normalize that in the home so when the child goes to the school environment, those practices are a part of what they do.”
It’s difficult to speculate what pediatric COVID-19 cases will look like in the U.S. as fall approaches, health experts say. Salemi says cases could plateau, like in the older populations, as more children become infected and develop protective antibodies against the virus.
But Shane worries COVID-19 cases in children may continue to rise if more people don’t get vaccinated, leaving the potential for more transmission and dangerous variants to emerge.
“We’ve learned that we can’t predict anything about this virus,” she said. “The more people that remain unvaccinated and potentially eligible for variants to infect and create challenges and transmission, the greater the possibility is that we’re going to see surges.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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