COVID-19 cases have blown up all across Arizona, especially in schools – leaving the school boards trapped between a new state law and advice from county, state and federal health officials.
Navajo County Health Director Janelle Linn told the board of supervisors this week that cases are surging again, especially among children and young adults.
“We are starting to see cases surge again in our community – with 169 new cases last week reported to the county on non-tribal lands. That’s an increase from 148 the week before. In all of July we had 304 – and so far in August we have 502. We had 47 new cases yesterday.”
She noted that younger people account for a growing share of the cases.
“We’re experiencing a larger percentage in younger individuals,” she said.
Younger people now account for 66% of new cases – compared to about 40% several weeks ago.
Only 36% of Navajo County’s non-reservation population has had at least one shot of the vaccine – including just 18% of those younger than 20. This makes schools a potential breeding ground for the virus – which can then spread through families into the community.
State, Federal and County health officials all recommend that those who test positive and their unvaccinated close contacts should quarantine for 10 days – or for eight days if they have a negative test after six days.
However, this conflicts with a state law that takes effect on Sept. 30, which bars any school policy that treats vaccinated people any differently from unvaccinated people.
The state policy would seem to require districts to either quarantine all close contacts – or no close contacts. That puts school boards squarely in the middle between the state legislature and the disease experts.
Some districts have followed the advice of the health department – with mask mandates and different policies for the unvaccinated. Most have stuck with the state rules, despite the increased spread due to the lack of masks and the increased disruption caused by quarantining the vaccinated.
The delta variant appears more likely to infect children and is now being spread mostly by unvaccinated children and younger adults. It’s still most dangerous to older adults. However, in the non-reservation portions of Navajo County only 45% of those between the ages of 55 and 64 have even gotten one shot and only 68% of those older than 65. Apache county’s doing even worse off the reservation – with 27% of those between the ages of 55 and 645 and 35% of those older than 65 vaccinated.
Delta also appears more likely to cause a “breakthrough” infection among the fully vaccinated. However, the vaccine still largely prevents serious illness or death in those cases.
Children still rarely become seriously ill during the initial infection. However, they can readily spread the virus even if they have few or no symptoms.
Moreover, doctors don’t know how many children may develop a rare and potentially fatal inflammatory disorder months after recovery.
The CDC now recommends schools return to universal mask wearing in high spread areas like Navajo and Apache counties. However, the state law that takes effect on Sept. 30 bars mask mandates in schools.
Not exempting the vaccinated from quarantining enormously increases the challenge of keeping schools opened in the midst of a surge. Last year, so many teachers were close contacts that some districts ran out of substitutes – and had to shut down both the middle school and the high school for extended periods.
Doctors say widespread vaccination remains the key to returning to normal life and preventing the ongoing toll of death and serious illness. The vaccine prevents infection in 90 to 95% of infections and does an even better job of preventing serious illness and death. The virus is making a comeback mostly because vaccination rates remain so low.
Despite receipt of millions in federal grant money, many districts remain poorly prepared for yet another year with a surge of cases on campus.
Many families in rural areas still have little or no access to the internet – making it difficult for students in quarantine to keep up with their classes.
Many districts used federal pandemic money to buy computers for students to use at home – but that doesn’t help without the internet or parents who can answer questions and keep students on task.
Most districts returned to in-person classes without much preparation for developing ways for students in quarantine to keep up with their lessons. Some teachers have adapted to things like Google Classroom sessions, video conferences with students and parents, live streaming lectures and managing the flow of assignments – and even group work over video connections. But that tends to depend more on the teacher than the districts.
Studies have shown that students from high-income homes, good Internet and highly educated parents didn’t suffer much from the online learning in the pandemic. However, studies have documented months of lost academic progress among low income and minority children and children as well as kids from homes where parents couldn’t stay home from work to provide additional support at home.
The fresh surge in cases, the spreading number of students in quarantine, the lack of mask mandates on campus and the stalled vaccination campaign – especially among the young – threaten to spawn a second year of lost progress for many students.