Fall 2021 school reopening: Stats so far

Over 1,400 schools have closed temporarily thus far in fall 2021, according to data collected by Burbio. Screenshot taken on September 11.

The COVID-19 Data Dispatch has, clearly, been pretty focused on school reopening in recent weeks. But our “Opening” project is primarily retrospective, looking back at schools that were successful last school year. This fall, the Delta variant and additional political pressures have made reopening success even harder to achieve.

With some schools now over a month into the fall semester—while others, like those in NYC, are finally starting class next week—let’s talk about how reopening has gone thus far.  

Many schools in high-transmission areas have closed temporarily. “More than 1,400 schools across 278 districts in 35 states that began the academic year in person have closed,” writes U.S. News reporter Lauren Camera, citing data from the tracking organization Burbio. Due to out-of-control COVID-19 outbreaks, some districts switched temporarily to remote learning while others fully closed or delayed the start of class.

While that may seem striking, it’s just about 1.4% of the 98,000 public school districts in the U.S. And, as you can see from Burbio’s closure map, many of the districts that had to shut down are located in Southern states with limited COVID-19 safety protocols. In Texas, for example, over 70,000 K-12 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the fall semester, out of about 5.3 million total students. In the 2020-2021 school year, about 148,000 Texas students got COVID-19 in total. This is a pretty clear signifier of the increasing danger that Delta, combined with lower mask use in schools, may bring to classrooms.

The school districts that closed include Scott County School District 1, the subject of our first “Opening” profile. This Indiana district originally opened in August 2021 with no mask requirement; cases quickly climbed, leading the district to shift to virtual instruction for two weeks. When students returned to classrooms in late August, masks were required once again.

Schools with stricter COVID-19 precautions are faring better. Many of those school districts that start earlier in August are located in the South. From a news cycle perspective, that means we tend to hear about the schools that shut down due to outbreaks before we hear about the schools that aren’t seeing so much virus transmission.

For example: this past Thursday, San Francisco’s local health department announced that the city has not seen a single case of transmission at a public school. School started on August 17, giving officials about one month of data for the district’s over 50,000 students. Safety precautions in San Francisco schools include required masking, surveillance testing, ventilation updates, and mandatory vaccination for teachers and staff. Dr. Naveena Bobba, from the city public health department, additionally said that about 90% of residents in the 12 to 17 age group are fully vaccinated.

We’re starting to see vaccine mandates for students in addition to teachers and staff. Los Angeles Unified is now requiring vaccination for all eligible students, ages 12 and up. LA is the second-largest school district in the country, serving over 600,000 students—including 225,000 who are eligible for vaccination. The majority of those students are already vaccinated, according to the county public health department; the rest will have until October 31 to catch up.

LA’s school district follows many colleges and universities that have required vaccination and Culver City Unified, another California district that announced a student mandate in late August. As vaccination rates in the 12-17 age group tend to be low and parent hesitation tends to be high, student vaccination mandates likely won’t be as common as staff mandates. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more districts make this requirement.

Despite federal encouragement to provide regular COVID-19 testing, many schools aren’t doing it. The Biden administration “Path out of the Pandemic” plan focuses on COVID-19 testing, including a call for K-12 school districts to set up regular testing for unvaccinated students and staff. If all schools followed the CDC’s testing guidance, they’d be testing at least 10% of students, at least once a week. (This is, again, an area where many colleges and universities are already excelling.)

School districts have had months to tap into $10 billion set aside specifically for school testing in the American Rescue Plan. But many districts are still not testing, or are offering tests only to students who show COVID-19 symptoms or were recently in contact with a case. The nation’s largest school district (New York City) has even loosened its testing protocol from last year—shifting from mandatory testing for 20% of students and staff every week, to non-mandatory testing for 10% of unvaccinated students every other week. Some parents and staff are not happy about the change, saying that NYC should be testing more, not less.

The federal government is expanding school data collection, but still not counting cases. After Biden took office, the federal Department of Education started surveying schools on their pandemic protocols—asking whether schools were open online, in-person, or hybrid, how many students were choosing different options, and other similar questions. Survey data are made public on a federal dashboard, updated once a month; but the data are fairly incomplete, with numbers unavailable for about 20 states and all but ten individual districts.

Now, the federal DOE is expanding its survey efforts “by asking more questions about how students learn and what precautions schools take,” according to EdWeek. But if the DOE doesn’t also expand its survey to more school districts and states, it’s unclear how useful these data will be. And the federal government still isn’t tracking the most important metric here: actual case counts in schools!

While pediatric case counts soar, children are still at low risk for severe disease. As we see reports of record cases in children and overwhelmed pediatric ICUs, it is important to recognize that—tragic as these reports may be—the majority of kids who contract COVID-19 have mild cases.

An article from the German news site Spektrum der Wissenschaft, republished in Scientific American, helps to explain how children’s immune systems work to recognize the novel coronavirus and stop the virus from causing severe disease:

The immune system uses a special mechanism to protect children from novel viruses—and it typically saves them from a severe course of COVID-19 in two different ways. In the mucous membranes of their airways, it is much more active than that of adults. In children, this system reacts much faster to viruses that it has never encountered, such as pandemic pathogens. At least, that is what a recent study by Irina Lehmann of the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité and her colleagues suggests.

As children get older, the article explains, immune system resources are shifted from this innate response to a memory-based response; adults are thus more protected against viruses that they’ve encountered before.

Read the Opening series

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