School Is Starting. Can Children Stay Safe From Covid-19?

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California Today

How to limit infections in the classroom. Plus, what the data shows about how the Delta variant affects children.

Soumya Karlamangla

Aug. 16, 2021, 9:03 a.m. ET

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Siblings hugged as they entered Norseman Elementary school in Fresno, Calif., on the first day of class last week.
Credit...Tomas Ovalle for The New York Times

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 return to in-person classes today. 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 this month because of outbreaks, heightening fears among parents in California. In one county in the Atlanta suburbs, more than 700 students and employees tested positive for the virus in just the first two weeks of school, my colleagues report.

But experts say that though 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 U.S., and vaccines haven’t been approved for children under 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 U.S.C., told me. “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 aren’t yet eligible.

    Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated that all teachers and school staff members be vaccinated against the virus or submit to weekly testing. On Friday, L.A.U.S.D. 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 fit snugly.

    A test to check whether it fits properly: If you wear glasses and they 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.

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Credit...Clara Mokri for The New York Times

A rising number of children hospitalized with Covid-19 nationwide has raised concerns that the Delta variant is particularly severe for that age group.

But in California, the approximately 18 children and teens being hospitalized daily with Covid-19 is lower than the 29 per day that were hospitalized during the winter surge, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The numbers suggest that what’s driving the record number 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 also have 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 the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. “So it’s just that more children, more adults are coming down with the disease.” He added that it’s “not really that it’s necessarily that much more severe in children.”

For more:

  • The Biden administration is developing a plan to start offering booster shots to Americans as soon as the fall, my colleagues report. The first doses are likely to go to nursing home residents, health care workers and the elderly.

  • All of the 100 biggest school districts in the U.S. are fully reopening, but their safety precautions vary widely. Read more.

  • Doctors say that children who have mild or even asymptomatic infections may experience long Covid, a syndrome that can include potentially debilitating issues that disrupt their schooling, sleep, extracurricular activities and other aspects of life.

  • The father of an elementary school student in a town about 50 miles from Sacramento is accused of attacking a teacher because he didn’t want his daughter to wear a mask, BuzzFeed News reports.

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Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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  • Mendocino water shortage: There’s a crippling water shortage in the tourist town, an extreme example of what some Californians are experiencing in the second year of the state’s drought. Century-old, hand-dug wells have run dry, and importing water comes with a hefty price tag.


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Credit...Christopher Simpson for The New York Times

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Credit...Angal Field for The New York Times

Today’s California travel tip comes from Sri Muppidi, a reader who lives in the Bay Area. Sri writes:

I’ve been a lifelong resident of the Bay Area, and a fun spot to visit is the Garden of Eden in Santa Cruz. The Garden of Eden is a small swimming hole near Henry Cowell Redwood State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains. You walk by railroad tracks on the way to get there, and the water is perfect for swimming on a hot summer day. There’s even a rope swing to jump into the swimming hole. My friends and I used to come out here when we went camping or hung out in Santa Cruz.

Tell us about the best spots to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


Whether you’re a parent, teacher or student, I’d love to hear from you about the first day of school.

Please send me a few sentences about your (or your child’s) return to the classroom, including your name, school, age and grade, if appropriate. Your response may be published in an upcoming edition of the newsletter.

Joy, anger, fear, boredom — I want to hear it all. Email me at CAtoday@nytimes.com.


For those of you in the Los Angeles area, the Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival is back, with showings of “The Tempest” through Sept. 5. Get tickets here.


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Greenish-brown eye color (5 letters).

Miles McKinley and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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