The new school year is already a disaster: Thousands of students are quarantining as COVID-19 cases skyrocket among kids

The new school year is already a disaster: Thousands of students are quarantining as COVID-19 cases skyrocket among kids
A child wears a mask at a California school. Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
  • Days into the school year, COVID-19 outbreaks have already forced thousands of students to quarantine.
  • Experts predict that pediatric infections will continue to rise, leading to more school closures.
  • Bans on mask mandates while young kids wait on vaccine authorization make it tough to protect students.

Mere days into the new school year, thousands of kids across the US are already being asked to quarantine following exposure to COVID-19.

In Mississippi, where daily cases have doubled in the last two weeks, more than 4,400 students were quarantined from August 2 to 6, according to state data. One Mississippi school, Pearl River Central High School, has quarantined nearly 40% of its student body since August 5. The entire school district opted to go virtual for at least two weeks to be safe, the Mississippi Free Press reported.

And in Reno, Nevada, more than 80 students were likely exposed to COVID-19 on Monday after a parent knowingly sent their infected child to school.

"I think this fall is going to be really challenging for schools," Richard Besser, former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday. "I think children belong in the classroom. But what we're going to see is little outbreaks, clusters in different schools, schools shutting down, reopening."

Besser said he expected schools to shut down more often this year than they did last year.


Already, pediatric infections are on the rise: The US recorded nearly 94,000 child COVID-19 cases between July 30 and August 5 - more than double the number of pediatric cases recorded during the two weeks prior. Pediatric hospitalizations have risen 27%, on average, in the last week, as shown in the chart below.

The new school year is already a disaster: Thousands of students are quarantining as COVID-19 cases skyrocket among kids
New COVID-19 hospital admissions for children under 18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Scientists agree that the Delta variant has made school outbreaks more likely. The variant is two to three times as contagious as the original version of the virus, according to one estimate, and vaccinated people can still spread Delta to others.

"The Delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country, as it has also done for unvaccinated adults," Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote in a recent letter to the Food and Drug Administration.

The letter called upon the FDA to "ensure that COVID-19 vaccines for children can be authorized as swiftly as possible."

Bans on mask mandates make it difficult to control transmission in Texas and Florida

The new school year is already a disaster: Thousands of students are quarantining as COVID-19 cases skyrocket among kids
Freshman Hugo Bautista eats lunch separated from classmates by plastic dividers at Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kansas on March 31, 2021. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Studies of school transmission last fall indicated that masks and social distancing lowered the spread of COVID-19. That science hasn't changed, but Delta leaves even less room for error.


"Masking and distancing still works for Delta. It's just that you have to be more meticulous," Hilary Babcock, the medical director of infection prevention at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri, recently told Insider.

But both Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently banned mask mandates in schools. DeSantis even threatened on Monday to withhold funding for schools that require masks.

Florida and Texas are seeing more daily pediatric hospitalizations than any other US state: On average, Texas recorded 54 pediatric hospitalizations per day between August 1 and 9 (the most recent data available). Florida, meanwhile, recorded 40 pediatric hospitalizations per day over the same period. The national average was just five daily pediatric hospitalizations per state during that time.

Several Florida and Texas counties are pushing back on their state's anti-mask policies, though. In Texas, officials in Dallas and Bexar counties recently won court orders challenging Abbott's school mask ban. And some Florida counties, including Palm Beach, continue to require face coverings inside school buildings and on school transportation, contrary to DeSantis' rule.

As of Wednesday afternoon, however, nearly 500 students in Palm Beach were quarantined after being exposed to COVID-19 just two days into the school year. Up to 6,400 Palm Beach students didn't wear masks during the first few days of class, despite the mandate, the local CBS12 station reported.


Some Texas schools have found it similarly difficult to enforce mask requirements.

"You can't ask people to wear a mask. You can't require people to stay home. You can't require people to get tested. I felt safer last year coming back to school than I do this year," Becca Harkleroad, a school nurse in Central Texas, told the 19th on Thursday.

One glimmer of hope is that vaccines may soon be available to kids ages 5 to 11: Pfizer expects to have data about its vaccine's efficacy among this age group by the end of September. That would put the US on track to start administering vaccines to young kids sometime in October, assuming the FDA authorizes them.