As U.K. variant spurs lockdowns abroad and takes hold in U.S., schools should be prepared to ‘pivot quickly,’ experts say
Asher Lehrer-Small | March 22, 2021
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As a more contagious strain of COVID-19 sweeps across the United States, infectious disease experts say schools should brace for a challenging spring.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said he’s expecting the strain to cause a “big bump” in cases toward the end of March and into April — a worry shared by Dr. Fauci.
With over three-quarters of the American population yet to receive any vaccinations, many remain vulnerable to this possible surge.
As students continue to return for in-person learning, the rising cases could require schools to strengthen their efforts to keep transmission in classrooms low, experts say.
As of March 15, nearly 50 percent of U.S. students were attending schools offering in-person learning five days a week, up 10 percent from mid-February, according to the school tracking website Burbio.
In the face of new variants, schools can still open, but they should be “doubling down” on safety measures, said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a recent review of 130 studies on COVID-19 and schools.
Already in Europe, spread of the more transmissible variant has caused infections to surge, spurring a new round of school lockdowns. Poland imposed restrictions requiring teachers to combine remote and in-person instruction, France is mulling additional closures, and Italy announced shutdowns for more than three-quarters of its schoolchildren.
Schools in the U.S. that are reopening or preparing to reopen “may have to change and pivot quickly,” said Osterholm.
The amplified danger of this new strain is caused by adaptation that allows the mutant virus to bind more easily to human cells, making it about 50 percent more infectious than previous versions.
“This is just a different bug,” said Osterholm.
Known by the scientific community as B.1.1.7, the variant doesn’t preferentially infect kids. But as it spreads, children may be more likely to get sick than they would have been previously.
“It’s not that it’s affecting kids more. It’s just affecting everyone more, including kids,” explained Dr. Phil Chan, associate professor of medicine at Brown University.
Though past studies have shown schools mostly do not drive community COVID transmission, Osterholm, in contrast to Bailey, fears that schools could become a locus of spread as the UK variant takes over the country.
In Germany, as community-wide levels of infection balloons, outbreaks have occurred in classrooms as young as kindergarten. And in Osterholm’s home state of Minnesota, 68 positive cases of the new strain have been linked to youth athletics since January.
“We’re seeing very dynamic transmission in [young people]. Not only between kids, but between kids and adults,” the infectious disease specialist said.
Chan, who also serves as medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said safety precautions like masking, ventilation and contact tracing will remain key tools for keeping transmission low for in-person learning. Schools in the Ocean State have been open since September, and have seen minimal spread.
“The same mitigation measures that we have successfully employed in schools since September should continue to be effective as we see more B.1.1.7,” added Benjamin Linas, associate professor of epidemiology at Boston University.
The good news amid all the fear related to the more infectious strain?
“The vaccine absolutely controls it,” said Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University.
With reports that 10-30 percent of COVID-19 cases can include long-term symptoms, including for young people, Kamil emphasizes the need for inoculating children — which for youth 12 years old and above will likely happen this fall and for youngsters will be in early 2022.
“Kids need to be vaccinated as soon as possible,” he said.
But despite millions of shots being administered each day, under 12 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and nearly 80 percent have not yet received any vaccine at all. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable to the more contagious strain.
“I’m really concerned about the next few months,” said Chan.
Osterholm echoes that worry. Now is the time for caution, he said. And soon, as vaccinations progress, the landscape will be less threatening.
“By summer it’ll be a different ballgame,” he said.