Opinion

The Delta variant threatens another school year. That can't happen.

Why the prospect of cases in this country following the trajectory of the U.K. fills me with dread

Was it really just two weeks ago that I penned a column reflecting on the peculiarity of the "in-between days" at the end of a pandemic? No longer living with lockdowns and continual fear of contagion, illness, and death, we were heading toward normalcy but not quite there yet. We would be soon, but in the meantime, we were biding our time in a kind of antechamber to a fully post-pandemic world.

That piece was published on June 23.

Now in the first full week of July, things look a little different — and more than a little darker.

As I write, it has just been announced that the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics will take place under a COVID-19 state of emergency. With the Delta variant producing a spike in new cases in Japan, fans will be banned from attending events, which will take place before empty seats.

This comes about a week since I first noticed a subtle change to the home page of The New York Times. Every day, the paper posts data about new cases and new deaths, showing a 14-day trendline. For the past several months, since last winter's deadly peak in cases and the widespread distribution of vaccines, the trend has been downward: one day down 28 percent from two weeks previously, the next day down 19 percent, and so on. The magnitudes varied from day to day, but they were always negative, the trendline always down. But not anymore. Over the past two weeks, the trend reversed, with negative signs replaced by positive daily changes.

Cases are rising once again.

This shouldn't be surprising. We've seen it coming. The horrifying numbers of deaths in India from the more contagious Delta variant. The deeply troubling statistics coming out of the U.K., where half the country is fully vaccinated and yet the number of daily new COVID cases (most of them Delta) has increased 13-fold since early May. Then, a few days ago, a study out of Israel (57 percent fully vaccinated) claiming to show that the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine at preventing the disease falls from the 90-percent range to something around 64 percent with the Delta variant, though those who become sick experience milder symptoms. Even more recently, press reports out of Israel indicate that the number of serious cases of COVID has doubled in the past week — including a fully vaccinated 46-year-old who died of the disease.

What does this mean for the United States, where just 48 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated and many of the holdovers are opposed to receiving the shot? Nothing good. Though it need not necessarily mean a return to anything resembling the widespread closures and restrictions and low-grade panic that prevailed from March 2020 through the subsequent twelve months. Most of those at gravest risk — above all the elderly — have been vaccinated. Even if the worrisome results of the Israel study are replicated by others, that would portend a widely circulating disease that makes people feel like crap for a week or two but in the vast majority of cases proves to be non-fatal. That's something we've lived with for decades with the flu. There's no reason to think such an eventuality would upend our lives like the full-on pandemic response of a year ago.

Except, perhaps, for schools.

My daughter was in her final months of 8th grade when the pandemic hit. She struggled with asynchronous lessons that spring, missed out on middle school graduation, and then spent the bulk of her freshman year of high school feeling lethargic, unengaged, and angry at being forced to stare at a computer screen for 6-7 hours a day of online learning (not counting homework). Her grades wavered badly. She made no friends all year and took part in no extracurricular activities at all.

By March 2021, with the vaccines becoming more widely available and cases falling fast, the school began reopening. Eventually, she was back in the school building four days a week, at least most of the time. Other weeks, when students in her classes tested positive, or when her brother came down with COVID, she was back at home in quarantine, attending school online. But for most of April, May, and the first half of June, school had returned. She had to wear a mask all day and follow rules about distancing and treating corridors as one-way thoroughfares, but those were small prices to pay for the privilege of getting out of our house, attending classes and interacting with teachers in person, and socializing with peers.

I have to say that the prospect of cases in this country following the trajectory of the U.K. fills me with dread, mainly because of what it could mean for my daughter's sophomore year of school. Shutting down in-person instruction for high schoolers wouldn't make any sense at all. But that doesn't mean it won't happen.

The vaccines against COVID-19 are approved for kids over the age of 12. If our home state of Pennsylvania made receiving one of the shots a requirement for attendance, compliance would rise very high, rendering high schools among the safest places in the country. But what about lower grades? So far the vaccines have not been approved for kids under the age of 12. That could make elementary schools hotbeds of COVID transmission this fall. If the Delta variant proves as benign in children as earlier forms of the disease, and if students' older family members at home as well as teachers and staff members in schools are vaccinated, the negative consequences should be minimal.

But what if the Delta variant makes kids sicker? Or if the Israeli study is right and the Pfizer vaccine is significantly less effective against it, raising the likelihood of vaccinated teachers getting sick? The fatality of the disease might remain relatively low for exposed teachers. But tests revealing widespread presence of the virus in schools could inspire panic among anxious parents — and within teachers unions. Teachers in many school districts around the country have a track record now of prioritizing their own health and safety in the face of an uncertain epidemiological threat over the developmental — intellectual and social — needs of the nation's children. Will they make the same calculation if case numbers are surging again as we approach Labor Day?

I certainly hope not. The Biden administration as well as state and local officials around the country should be doing everything in their powers to ensure that all kids can return to something resembling normal schooling this fall. That means making vaccination against COVID a requirement for attendance for all kids older than 12 — and moving mountains to get the vaccines approved for younger kids in time for such a mandate to be universally enforceable before the start of the school year. We already require shots for measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, and other diseases. Adding one more wouldn't be onerous or unreasonable, and it would do a world of good.

Beyond that, it just might be necessary for Americans to adjust their expectations around risk. If you've been vaccinated, you're highly unlikely to die from COVID in any of its variants up to now. But you might get sick. That holds for teachers and parents of kids, both of whom are accustomed to coming down with an endless parade of viruses in the course of every school year. This coming school year, if you've been vaccinated, one of those viruses might be a doozy. But you will be overwhelmingly likely to recover from it, just as you would from a nasty bout of the flu.

The risk calculation might have to change again if more dangerous variants arise that are even better at "breaking through" the protections afforded by the vaccines (and any boosters that can be devised). But until then, we look likely to be faced with an imperfect but manageable reality. The kids have stagnated long enough in a pedagogical and social limbo. Schools must be fully open this September, even if that means they, and we (parents and teachers), have to live under a threat of illness.

Another scuttled school year shouldn't be considered an option.

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