By: Clara Guthrie
There was a period in the late spring and early summer of this past year in which it seemed America’s COVID-19 struggles were nearing some long-awaited conclusion: the last few moments of breathlessness before a collective sigh of relief. At that time, students and their parents looked forward to a seemingly normal back-to-school season. Yet, the recent rise in the Delta variant has introduced a new wave of doubt.
On August 8 alone, The New York Times reported 36,068 new Covid-19 cases and a seven-day average of 110,360 total cases in the United States. Covid-related deaths are also on the rise, with a seven-day average of 516 deaths. This figure has risen from a weekly average of 188 deaths only one month prior, on July 6. Experts attribute these rising numbers to the highly contagious Delta variant overlaid with low vaccination rates in certain areas across the country. When asked about these trends in mid-July, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said, “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk.”
Unfortunately, as the Delta variant continues to run rampant throughout unvaccinated communities, people who are fully vaccinated are also being infected. Although, it is far rarer. These “break-through” cases speak mainly to the wild infectiousness of the Delta variant, coupled with the facts that no vaccine is 100% effective and that our knowledge of how long immunity lasts after vaccination is still quite murky. According to CNBC, however, “break-through” cases still represent fewer than 0.08% of those who have been fully vaccinated in the United States since the start of the year.
With that being said, the Delta variant is impacting the hopes of a normal back-to-school season in two distinct ways. The first, perhaps more obvious way, is that parents and teachers are fearing for students’ health. This fear suggests a potential return to online learning and more strict social distancing and mask mandates enforced within schools.
It is important to note that COVID-19 poses a far lesser threat to young children than to adults; the risk of becoming severely ill from the virus increases for those over the age of 50 and only grows with age. According to the CDC, the risk of serious illness or complications from COVID-19 for children is actually lower than that from the flu. However, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for any form of vaccination. This restriction is raising concerns about how susceptible younger age groups are to becoming sick, even if that sickness does not lead to any serious complications.
Thus, many parents and school districts are pursuing a range COVID-19 precautions to ensure the safety of students. Time Magazine shared a story last week of a school board in Des Moines, Iowa that has already decided to offer a virtual learning option for elementary school students. The ability to transition to in-person learning is available whenever the family feels comfortable enough to do so. This move was, in part, forced by the recent ruling of eight states, including Iowa, to ban schools from being able to require masks – despite the CDC’s recommendation that all students should wear masks inside schools, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated. “Had we been able to follow the CDC recommendations that everyone in school is masked, regardless of their vaccine status—if we were able to mandate that, then I think we’d be having a different conversation here,” Phil Roeder, a spokesperson for Des Moines’ Polk County public schools, said.
Other counties are having similar struggles, even without the imposition from state governments to ban mask mandates within schools. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in May that all online learning would be eliminated come fall, a decision that he has not yet reversed. But many parents are now petitioning for online options for their children as safety concerns continue to rise. One parent, Farah Despeignes, who is the president of the Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group and has two middle-school-aged sons, said, “When you think about the conditions of the schools with old buildings, with not enough ventilation, that are co-located, that are overcrowded—for us, in the Bronx, in underserved communities, it’s not as simple as, ‘Well, let’s just get back to school.’”
In California, options for students are equally limited. According to The Los Angeles Times, the state has done away with “hybrid learning, ”a combination of in-person and online learning. As a result of such, Los Angeles County parents had until August 6 to choose between either solely in-person or online learning for their children. The latter option is expected to take the form of an independent study, rather than the supportive online learning of last school year. On August 6th, L.A. Unified School District reported that only 10,280 of their almost 665,000 students opted for the online option.
The second prominent way in which the Delta variant is affecting back-to-school season is through the shopping behavior of students and their families. Back when the hopes of a normal school year were still high, The National Retail Federation predicted that consumers with children K-12 would spend a record-breaking 37.1 billion dollars this year. Furthermore, it was predicted that back-to-college spending would reach 71 billion dollars. These predictions were due to the excitement associated with a long-awaited return to the classroom after over a year away, when items like lunchboxes and backpacks seemed superfluous.
However, according to a recent poll by First Insight, many consumers are feeling anxious about returning to stores, trying on clothing in dressing rooms and making big purchases due to the risk of the Delta variant. In fact, 56% of respondents said they are actively cutting back their spending at retailers. The CEO of Bath Bed & Beyond, Mark Tritton, told CNBC that their stores have observed people delaying their back-to-school investments, and that peak spending may extend further into September than usual.
As many students return to their classrooms and the Food and Drug Administration continues to work on improving vaccines for individuals under the age of 12, it will become more and more clear how great of a mark Covid-19 has left on the American schooling system and the children within it.