Experts say this increase in transmission is to be expected, but keeping children in school should be the priority, and there are now enough ways to make sure it’s done safely.
“We see infectious diseases spreading every time the school year starts. That’s been a well-known phenomenon long before Covid,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, chairman of the pediatric association’s committee on infectious diseases. “The good news is that we are in a very different place with this pandemic than we were two years ago, or even last year, in terms of the percentage of the population that is vaccinated.”
Eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines was expanded to include ages 5-11 in November, making this the first full school year that all school-age children can have their initial series.
Children 5 years and older are also eligible for a booster shot, but only those 12 years and older can get the updated version. And so far, only about 10% of kids ages 5 to 17 have gotten a booster.
The slow rollout of vaccines for children is part of the reason pediatric cases became more frequent over the past school year, said Dr. Grace Lee, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and chair of the CDC Vaccine Advisory Committee.
In 2020, not much virus was circulating among children because most were learning from home, he said. But the negative effects of remote learning were coming to light.
“We needed to get kids back to learning in person. At the same time, we didn’t have as many opportunities to offer vaccination in a timely manner to those who were going back to school. That’s really a challenge,” Lee said. . “Part of the reason we saw case rates go up in pediatrics is because they were the last population to get vaccinated.”
Now, however, there is increased population immunity thanks to a combination of vaccination and infection.
That doesn’t mean the potential for Covid spread in schools should be ignored, experts say; it was still one of the top 10 killers of children last year, and there’s too much uncertainty about what’s to come.
“Now we’ve been infected, vaccinated, infected, vaccinated. Where are we going this season? I think we have to take it one year, one month at a time,” Lee said.
Last year, the CDC updated its school guidance to prioritize in-person learning while maintaining tiered prevention strategies like mask-wearing, physical distancing and vaccinations for those who were eligible. Last month, the guidance was updated again, removing recommendations for programs that require a negative test to remain in the classroom or restrict children to one classroom or cohort.
Mask mandates have also been reduced throughout the county.
However, while the CDC and others focus more on preventing serious illness from Covid-19, experts say there are still benefits to avoiding infection, especially for children at school.
“We really have to take a life course approach with children,” Lee said, thinking of both short-term and long-term effects.
In the short term, a Covid-19 infection “completely disrupts your family life, your school life and your personal life,” he said.
“Any time someone gets sick, whether it’s Covid, the flu or anything else, they fall further and further behind,” he said. And “the burden of infection is not equitable,” which makes the disparities grow.
Children can also have covid for a long time, a direct risk of long-term infection. And if enough teachers get sick, indirect risks from the early days of school closures may resurface.
As a parent, Lee recommends that children continue to wear masks in schools and stay up to date on any vaccinations they are eligible for.
“I would say that children have been the most adaptable during the pandemic. So I’m less worried about that part,” Lee said.
“I hope that we make schools a safe and equitable place to continue learning and that we support our children, no matter what.”