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Should kids go back to school? New delta info has parents and experts asking if it’s safe

The more we learn about the new variant’s extreme transmissibility and its potential effects on kids, the more questions arise about school safety.

Are masks enough to keep kids safe at school amid the delta variant

New cases of the delta variant continue to increase in the U.S., and so do parents’ fears about sending unvaccinated kids back to school. Between August 12 and August 19, over 180,000 new pediatric COVID cases were added. As kids continue to get sick and we learn more about the extreme transmissibility of delta, many are questioning classroom safety and wondering if it’s actually possible to adequately protect kids.

Just a few weeks into the new school year, there are already thousands of children in quarantine following COVID exposures across the US, and over 50,000 kids aged 17 and under have been hospitalized. Currently, only 14 states require masks in schools, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising universal mask wearing

There are also growing concerns that the delta variant may be transmitted more easily outdoors.

One parent on TikTok says her kids tested positive for the virus following an outdoor playdate. “We were exclusively outside, we ordered pizzas and the kids sat at the picnic table,” she says. “Some people got it [the virus], some people didn’t. Some were adults, some were children. But, overall, it’s overwhelmingly obvious this delta variant can spread outside.”

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A Seattle doctor also reports catching COVID after spending time with vaccinated friends outdoors. “I tested positive for COVID this week, along with 9 of 12 fully vaxxed friends (among others), days after we attended an outdoor wedding (that required proof of vaccination) in 1 of the lowest-risk states in the country,” she writes. 

For a lot of parents, the outdoors have been the one relatively safe place during the pandemic. The CDC has stated repeatedly that the risk of transmission is lower outdoors, and some schools don’t require children to wear masks outside. Anecdotal evidence of people catching and spreading the delta variant outdoors has led many to second-guess whether COVID safety at school is possible.

One Twitter user writes, “If this many people can get infected after being together outdoors for a few hours, what does that say about the safety of a classroom even with excellent ventilation?”

A teacher adds, “I start school tomorrow. Fully vaxxed, but will be spending 7 hours a day in a classroom with 24 unvaxxed 10-year-olds. We will be masked except for snack and lunch time. I’m terrified.”

Researchers are still working to understand how frequently the delta variant is transmitted outdoors. Currently, the CDC acknowledges that masks may need to be worn outdoors by those who are unvaccinated if they live in an area with a high rate of COVID transmission or will be in close contact with others; however, their guidance for schools only mentions mask wearing inside the classroom.

In addition to concerns over outdoor transmission, parents and experts are also worried about new research showing how often kids might bring the virus home to other family members. A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that out of 6,280 Canadian households with a positive pediatric COVID case, 1,717 households experienced a secondary transmission, meaning the child passed the virus on to someone else in the home. 

Children ages 0 to 3 years  in the study were the most likely to transmit COVID to another family member, but kids ages 4 to 8 years and 9 to 13 years also had increased odds of transmission. A recent report by NPR shows some school kids have even infected their vaccinated parents with the virus.

The CDC says unvaccinated people, a group that includes children under 12, are the biggest concern as we face the delta wave. The variant is more than twice as contagious as previous strains of COVID, and while masks have become a source of heated debate in some places, the CDC says they are still an effective way to prevent transmission of the virus. One June study of 100 school districts in North Carolina found only about one in 3,000 kids contracted COVID-19 in schools when masks were worn and other safety guidelines were adequately followed.

There are still many unknowns about the delta variant, particularly when it comes to kids. New information will continue to be made available as experts learn more about the virus, but the evidence so far suggests this strain of COVID is different than what many of us expected, and parents will need to exercise caution when evaluating the risks for their kids.