This wasn’t how the school year was supposed to begin.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation, and several other districts in California returned to in-person classes Monday. But the relief and joy of this much-anticipated moment has, for many, been eclipsed by uncertainty and anxiety.
Amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases nationwide, schools in Texas, Arizona and elsewhere have already had to close because of outbreaks, heightening fears among parents in California. In one county in the Atlanta suburbs, more than 700 students and staff tested positive for the virus in just the first two weeks of school.
But experts say that although reopening does increase the risks of transmission, California classrooms will be among the safest in the nation. Here, masks are required and teachers must be vaccinated against the virus.
“We’re not seeing outbreaks when people are following the guidelines,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Stanford Medicine and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. “When people point out, ‘Look at this outbreak’ in this school or that school, it’s almost exclusively because they’re not wearing masks.”
Still, the reopening of schools comes at an unfortunate time. The highly contagious delta variant is spreading widely in the United States, and vaccines have not been approved for children younger than 12, leaving them especially vulnerable to infection.
But there are ways to help keep children safe. Experts told me that layering multiple safety measures can provide strong protection, a strategy sometimes called the Swiss cheese model.
“We have learned that in-person education is not something we can replace with virtual learning,” Dr. Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California, said. “So, logically speaking, when we open, we want to make sure we have all — and I mean all, all, all — mitigation strategies in place.”
This is what works to prevent spread in schools, according to the experts:
— The most important tool is vaccination. Anyone who can get their shots should, as it will protect them and people around them who are not yet eligible.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has mandated that all teachers and school staff members be vaccinated against the virus or submit to weekly testing. LAUSD officials took that further, requiring vaccinations by Oct. 15 for anyone who sets foot on campus.
— Masking is also key. Whether a KN95 or a three-layer cloth mask, it needs to secure snugly on the face.
A test to check whether it fits properly: If your glasses fog up while you’re wearing your mask, the seal isn’t tight enough.
— Other effective methods for reducing spread: regular testing, ventilation, staggered lunches and physical distancing.
Many California districts are not requiring physical distancing inside the classroom because of space constraints. Experts say that masking and vaccinations reduce the need for distancing, but leaving space between students can further reduce chances of transmission.
Does Delta make children sicker?
A rising number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 nationwide has raised concerns that the delta variant is particularly severe for children.
But in California, approximately 18 children and teens are being hospitalized daily with COVID-19, lower than the 29 per day that were hospitalized during the winter surge, The Los Angeles Times reported.
The numbers suggest that what is driving the record numbers of pediatric hospitalizations elsewhere is the sheer volume of people falling ill, experts told me.
Florida, Arkansas and other states with hospitals inundated with pediatric COVID-19 patients are also places with far worse overall outbreaks than California.
“The game-changer of delta has really been this increased transmissibility,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, infectious disease expert at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. “So it’s just that more children, more adults are coming down with the disease … not really that it’s necessarily that much more severe in children.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.