Delta surge is test for US schools as classrooms reopen


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Rising Covid-19 cases and a worrying increase in hospitalisations among children have forced some US schools to rethink the long hoped for return to classrooms after the Labor Day holiday.

Covid hospitalisations in 10 US states hit record highs in August while positive cases among children are nearing the January peak, according to Financial Times analysis of available government data. The figures underscore how the Delta variant remains a stark threat, especially to the unvaccinated.

“In the last month we have seen the highest hospitalisations of children that we’ve seen in the entire pandemic,” said Sonja Rasmussen, a paediatrician at the University of Florida.

How the US manages the beginning of the new school term will be closely watched in the UK, Europe and elsewhere, as students in other northern hemisphere nations return to classrooms for the first time in more than a year. 

While the number of children in US hospitals with Covid has increased, it remains a small share of the overall total. However, the increase has coincided with record total Covid hospitalisations this summer in a several states, including Florida, Mississippi and Georgia.

Rasmussen said children were previously less exposed to the virus because of stringent mask wearing and social distancing rules “but now that everyone’s going back and some school districts are not requiring masks to be worn . . . we are seeing big increases in hospitalisations”.

Schools that reopened in August have set a worrisome precedent for those set to welcome students after Labor Day. Two school districts in Florida last week announced temporary closures in response to staff shortages due to Covid illness.

“I realise school closures cause an inconvenience to some, and for that I apologise,” said Jim Norton, superintendent of Gulf District Schools. “However, I truly feel it is necessary in order to build a stop-gap measure that will prevent the virus from spreading more widely.”

A judge ruled last month that Florida school districts could legally require their students to wear masks, saying Governor Ron DeSantis had overstepped his authority by banning such mandates © Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP

In Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools has implemented “a post-Labor Day pause”, closing schools for two days after Monday’s federal holiday to allow its 45,000 students and 2,800 staff time to monitor potential Covid symptoms following the long weekend’s festivities.

Meanwhile, a safe return to school is being undermined by the politicisation of the debate over coronavirus measures in the US. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children aged over two years old wear masks in the classroom, regardless of vaccination status, some Republican lawmakers have staunchly disagreed. 

In July Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, signed an executive order banning school boards from issuing masks mandates, arguing that parents should decide for their own children. 

Last week a Florida judge struck down the order following a case brought by parents. Covid has surged in the state, with the number of cases, deaths and hospitalisations reaching record levels last month, falling slightly in the past few weeks.

Line chart showing a 7-day rolling average of newly confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States since early 2020. Covid cases have continued to rise as states set new records. For an interactive version go to ft.com/covid19

In a sharp escalation of the battle between some conservative governors and educators, the US education department has launched an investigation into five Republican-led states including Utah and Oklahoma which have banned or limited mask requirements in schools.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” said Miguel Cardona, US education secretary.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said schools should be able to safely open full-time with mask mandates and increased vaccination. “The places where people are working together are going better than the places where governors or superintendents are acting politically instead of in the best interest of kids and educators,” she said.

The head of America’s second-largest teachers’ union has backed vaccine mandates for teachers, a measure which is already required in New York City and California. While 64 per cent of US adults are fully vaccinated, children’s rates are lagging behind. 

Column chart of New weekly cases in children, thousands showing Covid cases among children have increased

Adolescents aged 12 years and up can receive a Covid vaccine but only 38 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds and 47 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to CDC figures.

Children aged 5 to 11 years old will have to wait until later this year for a jab. Pfizer plans to submit its trial data to the US regulator in September.

Sara Goza, a physician and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children were making up a higher proportion of coronavirus infections due to the fact that kids under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines. For the week ending August 26, children made up 22.4 per cent of reported cases, compared with 14.8 per cent on average since the start of the pandemic, and 2.3 per cent of hospitalisations, according to data compiled by the organisation.

“We are seeing more children getting Covid at this point, and so we will see more hospitalisation and more children getting critically ill just because of the sheer numbers,” she said. Among children, the share of cases that result in hospitalisation has remained low (under 1 per cent) since the start of the year.

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