WASHINGTON – The country’s tenuous progress in reopening classrooms for in-person instruction has encountered a new enemy: the B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, which is both more transmissible and potent than the strain of origin, or wild-type, which emerged in late 2019.
Public health officials are trying to prepare school districts as B.1.1.7, which has recently become the predominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States, is proliferating across Wisconsin, Michigan and other states.
Speaking at a White House COVID-19 response team briefing Friday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky made a distinction between cases that originate from schools, this which is rare, and cases introduced in schools in the outer community.
“As cases increase in the community,” Walensky said, “we anticipate that the cases identified in schools will also increase. This does not necessarily indicate transmission in the school environment. “
Even when a teacher or student introduces the coronavirus to a school, an actual outbreak is rare, but schools across the country tend to approach the problem with caution. In New York, for example, schools had to shut down on the appearance of two cases, which led to inconsistent in-person instruction. Mayor Bill de Blasio raised the threshold for school closings earlier this week.
Walensky has consistently supported opening schools this spring and next fall, even as recalcitrant districts persist across the country, leaving millions of children confined to computer screens.
“We have yet to see evidence of significant transmission of COVID-19 in schools when schools have fully implemented CDC guidelines,” Walensky said on Friday. The centerpiece of this guide is universal masking, as well as spacing students in classrooms at a distance of 3 feet, washing hands, opening windows, and running outdoor classes each. times as possible.
Walensky also reaffirmed that schools should receive $ 10 billion from the Biden administration for coronavirus diagnostic testing. Rapid tests could prove to be a particularly valuable tool for schools, as they would allow near instantaneous detection of viruses, but they are not yet widely available in the United States.
A more widely deployed tool has been the coronavirus vaccines, which some 80% of teachers and school staff have received, according to a CDC announcement made earlier this week. These vaccines appear to be effective against variants of the coronavirus, especially when it comes to preventing hospitalization and death.
Walensky’s message was as obvious as the measures she touted, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to keep schools open. A resurgence of the coronavirus – likely led by increased dominance of B.1.1.7 – has already led to school closures in Toronto, as well as across France.
Walensky said public health officials had observed “an increase in cases associated with youth sports,” in retaliation for a warning she issued earlier in the week. This means little league and other youth sports may have to be sacrificed in parts of the country in order to keep schools open. It is widely believed that if bars and restaurants had been closed longer, schools would have opened earlier.
These compromises have become a hallmark of the pandemic, leading to controversial debates over what constitutes essential services.
President Biden has pledged to open the majority of K-8 schools for in-person instruction by the 100th day of his presidency, which will be at the end of April.
Right now, about 53% of American children attend in-person school five days a week, according to Burbio, which lists school reopens and includes high schools in its numbers. About 16 percent of students are totally remote and 31 percent are in a “hybrid” model.
A new wave fueled by a more transmissible variant could jeopardize or reverse that progress, putting an important political and social goal of the Biden administration beyond reach.
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