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School mask battles rage on as more children fall ill, fill hospitals

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A masked woman holds a pistol-style thermometer to a child's forehead.
Enlarge / Second-grade teacher Wendy Verrall takes students temperatures during the first day of class at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, California, on Wednesday, August 11, 2021.

While battles over mask mandates in schools rage on in several states, the delta-fueled COVID-19 surge continues to sicken more and more children, sending some to the hospital.

“There’s no doubt that there are more children getting infected,” top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said in a White House COVID-19 press briefing Thursday. “The delta variant is much more highly transmissible than was [the] alpha [variant],” he said, noting that delta is more than twice as contagious and those infected can carry viral loads up to 1,000 times greater.

“So, given that, you’ll see more children likely get infected and since you have a certain percentage of children—even though the percentage is small—a certain percentage of children will require hospitalization, so quantitatively, you will see more children in the hospital.”

Though some studies have suggested that the delta coronavirus variant may cause more severe disease than alpha, the data so far is not definitive. “The only thing we know for sure is that more infections mean more children will be in the hospital,” Dr. Fauci said.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted in the briefing that the areas seeing the largest surges in cases in children and adults are largely places with low vaccination rates.

In Mississippi, for instance, nearly 1,000 children and 300 teachers and school staff tested positive for COVID-19 between August 2 and 6, the second week of the new school year. Nearly 5,000 more children, teachers, and staff are now in quarantine. Mississippi has one of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases in the country currently and one of the lowest vaccination rates, with just 35 percent of residents fully vaccinated. Some school districts have mask-optional policies for in-person learning.

In Indiana’s Scott County—which has one of the highest case rates in the state and only 36 percent of residents vaccinated—officials for one school district moved children to virtual learning just days after welcoming them back to classrooms. The district said the move was “due to the high rate of positive cases and extremely high rate of student in quarantine.”

In Florida, where vaccination is below average and Gov. Ron DeSantis banned school districts from issuing mask mandates, cases are skyrocketing as children are preparing to go back to classrooms. In the past week, Florida had more new cases of COVID-19 than all 30 states with the lowest rates of new cases combined, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients noted Thursday. Florida also has the country’s highest daily average of children (under age 17) admitted to the hospital with COVID-19: 54 children per day. An analysis by the Miami Herald found that, while cases are rising in every age group, the rise is sharpest in children under the age of 12.

Needless suffering

Many school districts throughout the Sunshine State are in open defiance of DeSantis’ order and mandating universal masking in schools anyway—which aligns with guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. In response, DeSantis has threatened to withhold salaries of school administrators if they enact mask mandates.

On Thursday, more than 800 doctors signed a letter to DeSantis, blasting him for his “reckless” mask-mandate ban and not doing more to get people vaccinated. “What’s heartbreaking and infuriating for us as doctors is watching children needlessly suffer while Gov. DeSantis rejects simple protections such as masks and vaccinations,” they wrote. “Asking local schools and jurisdictions to look the other way while COVID-19 tears through our communities, or lose funding if they implement safeguards, won’t protect kids.”

A similar battle is playing out in Texas, where school districts continue to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. Texas has the country’s second-highest rate of children being hospitalized for COVID-19 each day—after Florida’s. Like DeSantis, Abbott is a Republican.

In the White House press briefing, Dr. Walensky was clear about how to keep children safe from COVID-19 and schools open for critical in-person learning: vaccinate all eligible adults and adolescents around children and use mitigation strategies—like masks—in schools.

“We do know how to keep our children safe,” Walensky said. When COVID-19 is getting into schools, it’s because there are high rates of COVID-19 in the community, she said. “So, the best way to keep our schools safe—and we know how to do it—is to vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated… and then to follow the mitigation strategies

So far, that’s bearing out in real life. Kim Anderson, executive director of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, told CNN that the NEA had been closely watching school reopenings. “In places where [schools are] not communicating well and in places where politicians are trying to strip the ability of communities to try to protect themselves, things are not going well,” she said. In places where there is good communication about safety plans and reopening, “things are going better,” she said.

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