Back to school: A new challenge against Delta variant

By: Diana Bello Aristizábal

 

Para leer en Español

This school year, scheduled to begin on August 23rd in Miami-Dade, will match with the rise of the Delta variant, the most recent strain of COVID-19 that today is responsible for more than 80 percent of all infections in the United States. Against this situation, many parents wonder if their children will be safe at schools and if the measures adopted by the school district are the most appropriate ones.

This concern stems from hospitals filling up with young patients every day while the average number of newly reported coronavirus cases grows. In the last ten days alone, the numbers have almost doubled.

At the local level, the outlook is even less encouraging. Florida is said to be one of the states in the country with the greater number of COVID-19 cases nationwide, having been responsible on one occasion for about one in five cases reported in the United States.

On the other hand, according to the Florida Department of Health, only 38 percent of children in the state between the ages of 12 and 19 have been vaccinated, while children under 12 years of age continue to be unvaccinated since it has not yet been clarified when they will have access to the vaccines against COVID-19. 

But among adults, the vaccination rate has not lived up to expectations either. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently revealed that there are still 100 million people in the country eligible to be vaccinated who have not received any doses of the available vaccines.

“90 percent of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 that we are seeing in the region from Broward to Martin County have not been vaccinated, and we believe that the Delta variant is predominant at the moment. We are also seeing more children admitted than before,” explains Dr. Lysette Cardona, Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Cleveland Clinic. 

But why is getting vaccinated so important? Because the more people are vaccinated, the less chances the coronavirus will have to continue mutating and spreading over the population.

This is especially relevant for the Delta variant considered by experts to be the most aggressive and contagious one that has ever existed since the pandemic began.

“This is concerning for the entire education community, from children, teachers, and school staff to parents,” says Dr. Cardona regarding back to school in the midst of this variant. 

Dr. Cardona explains that the risk lies in the fact that even those who do not develop the most severe disease of the variant can still spread the virus to others that, depending on different factors, could have more serious health complications.

For this reason, she thinks that given the seriousness of this variant, parents should prepare for the new school year by keeping their homes clean and aired, taking their children to their medical checkups, providing a balanced diet, and promoting vaccination among all eligible family members.

Considering the above, what awaits us in the new school year in light of the measures already approved by the school district to prevent a further spread of the virus? 

 

The use of face masks, a hot topic

Miami-Dade County education authorities have constantly been monitoring data, speaking with health professionals, students, parents, and teachers, and monitoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines as the concern around Delta grows.

“We are doing everything we can to have a normal school year and to ensure that students and teachers alike can be in a safe learning environment. Health will always be our top priority,” Christi Fraga, Miami-Dade School Board Member for District 5, told our journal. 

With this in mind, up until now, several measures have been taken by the District being the protocol about mask-wearing the main one. In this regard, School Superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, announced a few weeks ago that the use of masks within classrooms will be optional and the responsibility of parents, although this is not a final decision.

This stance differs from that of Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who by the end of July announced that masks will be required in all county buildings, and with that of neighboring Broward County, whose school board voted to implement a mask mandate for all students and teachers while indoors.

It also goes against the updated guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in which it was stated that everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, should wear a mask at K-12 schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued the same recommendation.

What it is confirmed, though, as far as Miami-Dade goes, is that students and staff are required to wear masks inside school buses. “Masks are the best way to protect ourselves against the virus in addition to vaccination and social distancing. These are important for those who have a medical condition and in environments where there is no certainty about who is vaccinated and who isn’t, such as schools,” says Dr. Cardona.

But in addition to face masks, the District has already spoken out on other issues heading into the new school year. First, it was established that social distancing will be enforced in cafeterias, and alternative dining areas will be used when possible.

On the other hand, there will be a health control room at every school; The schools will implement the strictest cleaning and disinfection protocols. At the same time, air technology will be improved using purifiers and other ventilation systems. 

Additionally, quarantine protocols will be changed. Now, only students directly affected by the virus will be quarantined instead of entire classrooms like before, and isolation rooms will be enabled.

Two options will be offered regarding virtual education: Miami-Dade Online and Miami-Dade Virtual for those parents who wish to opt for an online-only learning environment. 

According to a statement from Miami-Dade Public Schools, final decisions will be made two weeks before the start of the new school year, particularly regarding the mask policy.

 

The parents’ voice

Judging by posts on social media, many people believe that the measures adopted by the District are more in line with the point of view of Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, who is in favor of letting mask wearing to be optional, than with the scientific evidence.

“I feel that the school board tends to make decisions based not on kids safety but more out of fear of not losing funds if they don’t abide by the governor’s orders. For this reason, since August 2020 my children have been attending a private school,” says Vicky Garfield, mother of three boys, ages 9, 7 and 4.

Although she trusts in public education, she will continue to keep her children in a private school as long as the policy regarding face masks doesn’t change. “It is too early to remove them. All my children are less than 12 years old, which means they are not vaccinated,” says Garfield. 

A similar opinion is held by the mother and pediatric nurse, Ana Christina Pérez, who as a health professional, considers that masks don’t work if they are only used by a small portion of the population. “If half of a classroom uses them and the other doesn’t, we are not doing anything,” she says. 

In addition, she believes they are essential for younger children who are not only unvaccinated but are not skilled at covering their nose or mouth when they sneeze and cough. 

Her position is that face coverings are not only aimed at protecting children but the entire community, more so in the face of the highly contagious Delta. “Social distancing and handwashing alone are not enough,” Pérez states. 

In this regard, Vicky Garfield says that she doesn’t view social distancing as a feasible option considering that schools will return to their maximum capacity. “What is going to happen in the less favored communities that do not have the resources to buy Plexiglass or fogging machines?,” she wonders.

Meanwhile, Ana Christina wonders if the District is willing to take responsibility for affecting the entire community, including teachers, children, the elderly, and the unvaccinated population. 

 

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