Some Colorado parents see school as a “Russian roulette” with a delta variation
This story was written by Kaiser Santé news, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues.
The child had just entered kindergarten. Or, as his mother called it, “Russian roulette”. That’s because his school district in Grand Junction experienced one of the country’s first delta variant outbreaks last spring, and now school officials have relaxed rules meant to protect against COVID-19.
The mother, Venessa, who has asked not to be named in full for fear of repercussions on her family, is part of a group of parents, grandparents, health professionals and community members who have gathered in recent weeks to push back.
The group calls itself “SOS,” which stands for “Supporters for Open and Safe Schools,” while nodding to the international signal for urgent help. It is made up of Republicans and Democrats, Christians and atheists, and its main request: Requires masks.
Venessa said the concept wasn’t complicated for her 5-year-old. “She just puts it on, like her shoes.”
But just two weeks after the start of this school year, 30 classrooms already have reports of exposure to COVID-positive students, said district spokeswoman Emily Shockley. And three other classrooms were quarantined because they had at least three students who tested positive. Masks are still not universally required.
Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended “Universal interior masking” in schools regardless of their immunization status, schools across the country do not accept mask requirements, including for students under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the masks. protective vaccines.
Mesa County, where Venessa lives, was one of the places the variant arrived before school left for the summer. A report published in early August by the CDC found that from the end of April to the end of June, as the delta variant spread there, schools were the most common setting for outbreaks outside residential care facilities, although masks were required in schools for them. students aged 11 and over. Schools were larger centers of the virus than correctional facilities.
Susan hassig, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, sees the Mesa County report as a wake-up call for what’s to come, showing a strong spread of the variant among schoolchildren.
Previous assumptions that children were not likely to catch or spread the virus no longer apply, she said: Children are back to their regular activities in person, and with a highly transmissible variant circulating to boot. “We have a lot more children who are exposed, and with delta, a lot more children are infected,” Hassig said this month. “And now we have full children’s hospitals here in Louisiana.”
Politicians in eight states, including Texas and Florida, have banned mask warrants in public schools, but some school districts – including in big cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin and Fort Lauderdale and small like Paris, Texas – rebel against these orders and impose masks anyway, despite the threat of fines.
The Biden administration has backed local jurisdictions that have gone rogue, with offers for pay salaries Florida school board members going against their governor. The administration is also consider surveys in states and districts for potential violation of civil rights that guarantee access to education.
“We are not going to sit idly by while governors try to block and intimidate educators into protecting our children,” President Joe Biden said.
Dr. Jyoti Kapur, a pediatrician at the Schoolhouse Pediatrics in Austin, Texas, and a mother of two children under the age of 12, was part of a group that persuaded the school district there to enact a mask warrant. Kapur said his children were “ecstatic” about going back to school in person.
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“We want all principals and their boards to know all over Texas – and the country – that the experts are with you,” Kapur said. “Let’s do our best. If that doesn’t work, we will come down knowing that we have done our best to protect our children.
In Louisiana, Hassig pointed to “near vertical” case rates and hospitalization rates in his state as proof of how seriously schools should take the virus this year.
As a grandmother, she wants her granddaughter to be able to attend second grade in person. As an epidemiologist, she is concerned not only about the immediate effects of the delta variant on hospitals and economies, but also about the opportunity that its spread offers for the emergence of new strains that could be even more contagious or able to escape vaccines. For Hassig, masks are part of the toolbox that could allay both fears.
“What may have been enough to reduce widespread problems last spring will not necessarily work with delta, because delta is different,” Hassig said. “Be ready to take it up a notch.”
However, Mesa County Valley School District 51 is lowering the measures a notch – despite its experience last spring with epidemics. Without a state mask warrant in place this school year, the ruling was kicked county public health officials and individual school districts. And the Mesa County School District does not require masks for students or staff.
Kindergarten mom Venessa said she assumed the guidelines would be stricter this school year than last year due to the ubiquity of the delta variant. “Why not start with the horse on the back?” ” she said. “Not just open the corral, let it drain, then try to grab it?” “
Federal guidelines for public transportation mean that students must wear masks on school buses, but when they arrive at school, those masks can come off. According to Joel Sholtes, a member of the SOS group and father of a second-grader, this is exactly what has been happening since his child started school on August 9.
“Unmasked children tell our masked children that they don’t need to mask themselves and that they should take them off. Some kids are because they don’t want to stand out, ”said Sholtes, who, as a civil engineer, thinks it’s as important for schools to follow public health advice as it is for him to follow. expert advice on how to design a bridge.
“It’s not who can be the loudest at a public meeting. There are some things we need expert advice on, and we have to follow them, ”he said. “Public health should be no different. “
Police escorted school board members to their cars after a public meeting Tuesday because they felt threatened by some parents who wanted more time to voice their anti-mask and anti-vaccine concerns, according to at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Brian Hill, deputy district superintendent for Mesa County, said the school system “strongly recommends” indoor masking. He said he saw a mix of masked and unmasked students on his campus tours during the first week of classes.
“We will also support the students and staff in our schools, whatever decision they make on this matter,” he said. “Whether they make the decision to wear a mask or not, we’re going to support this on campuses in a way that we don’t want students to feel intimidated or to feel judged for the decision they make. “
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Hill pointed out last school year figures showing that family members – not school interactions – were the main culprits in transmitting COVID to the 1,293 students who tested positive out of the 21,000 students in the district.
“It’s a very small percentage that has been traced to any sort of transmission at school,” he said. “So we didn’t really see any transmission in our schools. It was happening in the community.
In the past school year, about 7% of people 18 and under who tested positive for COVID in the county were exposed in an institutional setting like a school or daycare, according to one district. presentation.
By the end of July, about two weeks before the start of the school year, less than 60% of school district staff were fully immunized and less than 23% of eligible students were fully immunized, according to the presentation.
Democratic Governor Jared Polis sent a letter to district superintendents imploring them to adopt strategies such as mask requirements, although he avoided imposing a statewide ordinance. Polite too recently announced that Colorado offers weekly rapid tests – considered useful screening tool when done frequently – to all schools in the state, and maybe even pay students between $ 5 and $ 25 to take the tests, although they need parental consent. Hill said it was too early to say if his district would agree to participate.
Blythe Rusling taught in fifth grade at one of dozens of schools in Mesa County that suffered an epidemic last spring. This was around the time when students aged 11 and over had to wear masks.
“The kids might complain a bit about wearing a mask, but by the end of the day they figured it was something we could do to keep each other healthy,” said Rusling, who is working as a reading interventionist this school year.
Now, however, she said, she noticed that the tenor had changed among the adults. As staff members prepared for school, she said, she was one of the few to wear a mask. “It almost feels like you’re not the cool kid when you wear a mask,” she said.
Yet two messages brightened up his vision for the future. They came from former students who had turned 12 and couldn’t wait to tell him the news: they had received COVID vaccines.