Public Education Is Set Up to Fail in the Pandemic

The spike in Covid-19 cases in the United States, driven largely by the Delta variant, is on a collision course with back-to-school season, which will see children—who are more affected by the variant—returning to in-person instruction en masse, often without masks, vaccinations, regular testing, or better ventilation.

Experts are worried that the results will be disastrous. And they fear that the worst of the crisis will hit the communities that have already been devastated by the pandemic, and have the fewest resources to make schools safer for children.

“I’m not optimistic at all,” said Dr. Amy Falk, a pediatrician in rural Wisconsin. “I’m just really worried about the school year.”

Falk cowrote one of the major reports on what schools can do to educate kids safely during the pandemic. Last year, the schools that required masks, as well as other measures like testing, cohorting, and upgrading ventilation, did not see significant spread, as multiple reports have shown. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has based its back-to-school advice on this science.

But Falk is worried that what worked a few months ago won’t stop Delta as easily now.

“We’re dealing with essentially a completely different virus than we were last school year,” Falk said. “It is just frightfully more infectious.” Schools that might have gotten by with limited measures last year, she said, could be hit very hard now.

At the same time, many districts are discarding all or most of these precautions entirely. Many children are returning to schools where masks will be optional or even prohibited, and they’re often coming back to buildings with inadequate ventilation or room for physical distancing. Some schools are not even testing or quarantining those who come into contact with the virus. And the children in many of the communities discarding these measures are already at high risk of getting very sick.

“Last year, schools did not seem to drive community spread. I think we will see differences this year,” Falk said. With the more transmissible Delta variant and fewer precautions, schools could become a hot spot for spread among communities, she said. “Delta is an entirely different game. Going at it with less mitigation starting school is going to be a big mistake.”