The prospects for safe, in-person classes continues to brighten — with new research on the limited spread of the virus within schools as well as development of a safe, highly effective vaccine.
Most Arizona public school students have been attending in-person classes for the past several weeks, after Gov. Doug Ducey ordered the end to distance learning statewide — except for high schools in communities where the virus is widespread.
One massive, national study showed that if schools test students with symptoms, enforce mask mandates, get teachers vaccinated and limit group, extra-curricular activities the risk of on-campus transmission of the virus drops dramatically.
Even with minimal or inconsistent precautions, in-person classes pose the most risk for teachers, staff and families at home — thanks to the heartening resistance of most children to the development of serious symptoms if they do get infected. In Arizona, people under 20 account for 16% of confirmed cases, but 0% of the deaths — a total of 27 deaths out of 17,000 statewide.
Even better, Pfizer-BioNTech last week announced that its two-shot vaccine proved 100% effective in preventing symptoms in a trial of about 2,200 children aged 12 to 15. Other vaccine trials involving other approved US vaccines and younger children are still underway.
The results suggest that before the next school year starts, children could be completely protected from COVID if their parents opt to get them vaccinated. The clinical trial involving 2,200 children found the vaccine 100% effective in preventing symptoms, with no serious side effects and few of the short-term effects the shot has on many adults.
Children developed an even stronger antibody response to the vaccine than adults, suggesting that the vaccine will prove even more effective in protecting them.
Epidemiologists greeted the news with relief, although the results have not yet been reviewed by outside scientists or published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Experts say the US won’t tame the pandemic until 80 or 90% of the population gets one of the three approved, highly effective vaccines. Children under 18 constitute 23% of the population — so the protection of herd immunity is impossible until most children get vaccinated as well.
Unfortunately, recent public opinion surveys suggest that only 55% of Americans say they have either already been vaccinated or intend to get the shot. About 23% say they don’t plan to get the shot, with the rest undecided. Unless doctors convince about half of those vaccine skeptics to get the shot, the virus will continue to circulate and cause outbreaks. The spread of more infections, potentially more lethal variants only increases the danger.
The CBS News/YouGov poll found Republicans appear far less likely to get the shot than Democrats. About 33% of Republicans said they wouldn’t get the shot compared to only 10% of Democrats.
In Gila County, the CDC on Monday reported that 30% of residents have been fully vaccinated, including 48% of those older than 65. That’s still far below the level needed to reach herd immunity.
In Navajo County, 30% of all residents and 54% of those older than 65 have been fully vaccinated. In Apache County, 41% of all residents and a heartening 69% of those over 65 have had their shots — dramatically reducing the odds a new surge in the virus will produce the same high death rate.
Some three million more Americans get one of the three approved vaccines every day. At the current pace, 90% of Americans will get a shot by July 22, effective ending the pandemic. However, that depends on reducing vaccine hesitancy significantly. In Arizona, 32% of the population has gotten at least one shot – but only 19% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Experts say this means people should continue wearing masks in public and limiting their exposure to “super spreader” events that bring together large numbers of unvaccinated people. The CDC’s most recent advisory suggests it’s low risk for fully vaccinated people to travel or gather in small groups with other vaccinated people.
The increasing spread of more infections strains of the virus has underscored the advice of small groups.
Fortunately, a growing body of research suggests schools can operate safely even if the virus continues to circulate in the community – providing they do things like routinely screen students for symptoms, get teachers vaccinated and limit group activities like sporting events, assemblies and other activities that bring a lot of people together in close quarters.
The research by doctors from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Princeton, and the University of Geneva relied on a massive, online survey involving more than 500,000 people. The researchers traced a host of COVID symptoms, then correlated infection rates with school policies.
The study found that “with seven or more mitigation measures, the association between in-person schools and COVID-19-related outcomes all but disappears. Teachers working outside the home were more likely to report COVID-19-related outcomes, but this association to other occupations like healthcare and office work.”
The study did find that children who attend in-person classes are more likely to infect other members of their household, but even this risk goes away “with properly implemented school-based mitigation measures.”
Each of the key mitigation measures reduced the risk of spread to teachers and families by about 9%. The most benefit came from screening for symptoms, teacher mask mandates and cancelling extra-curricular activities. Other interventions like closing cafeteria and playgrounds or putting up desk shields had no effect.
So living with children does increase the risk brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents will get infected – but in-person classes don’t really increase that risk so long as the schools implement a handful of protective measures.
The risk to family and friends of having a child in the household attend in-person classes increases with the age of the student. Kindergartners and pre-kindergartners pose essentially no risk. Mostly, the risk is limited to the families of high school students.
The Federal Centers for Disease Control had already reacted to a growing body of research by suggesting that schools can safely resume in-person classes with certain protective measures. The latest direction suggests that schools can provide just three feet of “social distance” in the classroom, rather than six feet. Ventilation in the classroom – like filtered air handlers and opening windows — can also reduce risk. This greatly simplifies the logistics of bring 20 or 30 students back to a single classroom.
Interestingly, the Johns Hopkins study found that attending half days, hybrid schedules or other more elaborate changes in schedules didn’t have much impact on reducing transmission rates in schools.
The study concluded, “even when students are infected, the risk of severe disease and death among teenagers and young children is low. This means that one of the main reasons for a focus on schools is not the risk to students, but the risk that in-person schooling poses to teachers and family members, as well as its impact on the trajectory of the overall epidemic.”
Fortunately, Arizona included teachers in one of the early risk group categories — so most teachers who wanted the shot got vaccinated weeks ago.
This has dramatically reduced the risk that an infected student will pose a risk to a teacher. Moreover, vaccinated teachers no longer have to quarantine when they have contact with an infected student in class. This has greatly simplified the challenge of keeping a teacher in front of every class in the midst of a statewide shortage of both teachers and substitutes.
However, only 75% of Payson teachers opted to get the free vaccine initially. This signals the potential struggle ahead to get the vaccinate rate up to 80 or 90%, the level at which the pandemic will finally fade away.
Even then, the spread of new, more infectious variants incubated in other countries with a far lower vaccination rate will require constant vigilance. Vaccine manufacturers are already working on new formulas and booster shots to deal with the new variants.