How the New Variant Could Affect Kids and Schools

This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

A new variant of the coronavirus, first identified in Britain, is expected to rapidly spread in the United States. That has fueled fears that children, who have largely been spared the worst of the virus, may become just as susceptible and contagious as adults.

The latest research puts the worst fears to rest. A large study by health officials in Britain found that young children are only about half as likely as adults to transmit the variant to others.

“That’s exactly what we had been seeing with this current variant that’s circulating in the U.S., too,” said our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli, who wrote about the science. “Nothing has really changed on that front.”

That seems like good news. But the new variant is about 30 to 50 percent more contagious than the original, for children and adults alike. It is expected to become the dominant form of the coronavirus in the United States by March, which means more kids will get the virus, even if they are still proportionately less contagious and less prone to getting infected than adults.

“Everybody has to now take the precautions extremely seriously,” Apoorva said. “I know that’s hard because everyone is so tired already, but it’s going to be more important than ever.”

We asked Apoorva to sit down with us for a Q&A. She explained why we initially thought the new variant affected kids more, explains why we now don’t and describes why this is a critical period for schools to prepare.

Generally, why are kids less contagious than adults?

In short, Apoorva said, “we don’t know.” One prevailing theory is that children have less of the receptors that the coronavirus binds to in order to infect human cells.

“Younger kids are very different from older kids,” Apoorva said. “There’s some sort of switch that happens — maybe around age 12, maybe around age 15 — that makes the risks for somebody in high school very different from an 8-year-old.”

Why did it initially look like the new variant was more dangerous for children?

The new variant started circulating in Britain in September, Apoorva said, right when schools reopened. Public health researchers saw spikes among children and a single modeling study initially amplified fears.

But that study, Apoorva said, did not consider lax enforcement of safety standards in schools — like not requiring masks.

“Schools were open without precautions,” she said. “They didn’t take into account all those other factors. That fueled a lot of fear about this variant being more contagious in kids, and that somehow the protection that kids seem to have didn’t exist with the new variant. That did not turn out to be the case.”

Where do you get that “half as likely” metric?

Although there were a lot of infections in schools, contact tracing added complexity to the story. Data from about 20,000 people infected with the new variant — including nearly 3,000 children under 10 — showed that young children were about half as likely as adults to transmit the variant to others.

“The variant is more contagious, but it’s more contagious across all age groups,” Apoorva said. “If kids were half as likely to be infected before, they’re also half as likely to be infected now.”

What does this mean for schools?

“We already know how to make schools relatively safe,” Apoorva said.

A mask mandate is a must, she said, as is physical distancing. Good ventilation matters — open windows will get air circulating and even an inexpensive air filter can make a big difference. Extensive testing and contact tracing is key. The new variant will result in more infections in children unless schools shore up their precautions, experts told Apoorva.

“We know that these measures work, but only if they’re actually enforced,” she said. “That becomes that much more important with this variant because it’s so much more contagious.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoed the need for mitigation (with masks, distancing, ventilation and cleaning), testing and appropriate quarantines. She also prioritized reasonable accommodations between teachers’ unions and districts, as well as vaccinating adults who work in school buildings.

“It requires people to actually act in the way that safety, not expediency, is foremost in their minds,” Weingarten said. “The mitigation strategies have to be embedded and have to be enforced. Not just on a piece of paper, but in reality in schools.”

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    So are schools safe?

    Yes, for now, experts say — especially for younger children, but only if they stick to precautions.

    “Just like we had time in the summer to get ready for the fall for schools to open, we have a chance right now to get this right,” Apoorva said. “We know the variant is here, but it’s still at low levels. We have time now to prepare to make sure that schools are ready for this variant.”

    Still experts cautioned that the pandemic, supercharged by the new variant, could force even elementary schools to close if community spread rises to unmanageable levels. That’s a likely proposition, given the surge in most states.

    “If all of a sudden, we have a surge of this new variant and the transmissibility is off the charts, there will have to be a lockdown of everything, including schools, to try to deal with it,” Weingarten said. (The threshold for community transmission, she said, should be 9 percent.)

    But that should be a last resort, after closures of indoor restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and malls, several experts said.

    “I still say exactly what many people have said for the past few months — that schools should be the last thing to close,” said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University.

    Read Apoorva’s full story here.

    Around the country

    College update

    College juniors and seniors are staring down an uncertain post-graduation landscape, with fewer internships and graduate program spots available. WKBN spoke to universities in Ohio working to help students navigate the process.

    In Michigan, the health department said college students could return to campus and restart in-person classes next week.

    There is a cluster of cases in the athletic department at North Carolina State University.

    A good read: In Florida and across the country, the pandemic has prompted students to study public health and other pandemic-related specialties. The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Black students motivated by the disparities they see firsthand.

    K-12 update

    President-elect Joe Biden said he planned to ask Congress to spend $130 billion to reopen K-12 schools. His administration says it wants to safely reopen “a majority” of kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools within Biden’s first 100 days in office.

    Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia urged schools to reopen and released a set of guidelines for them to do so safely.

    New York City has begun vaccinating teachers.

    Baltimore plans to reopen more elementary school buildings starting mid-February, despite the opposition of some teachers. Older elementary school students and some high school students are scheduled to have the option to return March 1.

    Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles superintendent, said the vaccine would be required for students once a pediatric version is available.

    A good read: New Mexico In Depth reported on the adverse impact of remote learning for the most vulnerable kids in the state, which ranks 49th in the U.S. for broadband access. Indigenous students are among the most vulnerable.

    Tip: Honoring Dr. King

    Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “In a moment of national racial reckoning, the holiday offers a timely opportunity to help it onward, through action and contemplation,” our colleague Alexis Soloski wrote.

    But the pandemic means celebrations will be mostly virtual this year. Alexis compiled a list of nine ways you and your kids can reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and the ongoing civil rights movement. And here’s a list of resources to aid in class and family discussions.

    This newsletter will not be publishing on Monday; we’ll see you on Wednesday.

    Sign up here to get the briefing by email.

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