I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Every day this week we’ve reported about hospitals treating growing numbers of kids who have COVID-19. This is happening just as schools are resuming, leading to mask mandates, anti-mask mandates, frustrated parents and fed-up students.
Here is what is going on.
Experts don’t know if kids are getting sicker with the delta variant of COVID, but they do know that this variant is more contagious, meaning more people, including kids who can’t get vaccinated, are catching it.
There were 93,824 child COVID-19 cases nationwide reported July 29 through Aug. 5, 15% of the total weekly reported cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The week prior, there were 71,726 new child cases; the week before that, 38,654. “After declining in early summer, child cases have steadily increased since the beginning of July,” the academy reports.
And somewhere between 0.1% and 1.9% of all child COVID-19 cases are resulting in hospitalization. So even if kids aren’t getting sicker with the delta variant, more of them are getting infected, meaning more are ending up in the hospital.
That also means a larger number of children have the risk of multisystem inflammatory syndrome – a rare but dangerous condition that can be triggered by COVID-19 and causes parts of the body to become inflamed. About 4,000 kids have contracted this syndrome since the start of the pandemic. Plus it means larger numbers of kids have a risk of long-haul COVID-19 effects.
And, of course, COVID-19 can kill kids. As of Aug. 5, 371 have died since the start of the pandemic. More kids have died of COVID-19 in the last 18 months than in a bad flu season. The highest number of flu deaths in one season (obviously shorter than the current 18 months of the pandemic) was 188 in 2019-2020, which tied the 2017-2018 figure.
The solution? Experts agree kids should be “ringed” by vaccinated parents, teachers and school staff, says USA TODAY health reporter Karen Weintraub. The CDC recommends students and staff members wear masks indoors in school this fall, regardless of vaccination status.
“There’s no need to be anxious if everyone in the school and at home who can be vaccinated is vaccinated, particularly if there’s a low background rate of infection,” Weintraub said. However, “in states with a low vaccination rate, high infection rate and low compliance with masks, it’s hard to imagine a kid not catching this, though hopefully they won’t get very sick.”
So those are the facts. As a result, according to a USA TODAY analysis, 13 states require masks at school. Eight states have banned school mask mandates. The rest allow some level of district flexibility.
The majority of parents (63%) in a KFF tracking poll out this week say unvaccinated kids and staff should wear masks in schools; 36% say they should not.
The responses broke down along political and racial lines.
“Majorities of parents who identify as Democrats (88%) and independents (66%) say their child’s school should require masks, while most Republican parents (69%) say they should not,” a summary from KFF said. “In addition, larger shares of Black parents (83%) and Hispanic parents (76%) compared to White parents (54%) support a mask requirement at their child’s school.”
Hundreds of people attended a four-hour Williamson County Schools Board of Education meeting in Tennessee on Tuesday, where the board voted to require masks at the elementary school level inside buildings and buses. The conservative county is just south of Nashville. WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said 25 elementary students had tested positive for COVID-19 since school started Aug. 6.
Nashville Tennessean reporters Anika Exum and Brinley Hineman wrote that during the meeting, chants of “No more masks” could be heard coming from the outside any time a door opened.
District mom Tessa Certa was one of the protesters. “She said last year she was fine with her children wearing masks because things were evolving constantly from a health perspective,” they reported. “But now more than a year into the pandemic, she is no longer on board with mask mandates at school.
“She said wearing a mask was isolating for her fourth grader and made it difficult for her other son who has speech difficulties. Wearing a mask makes it impossible for him to see his teacher’s face.”
Resident Leigh-Allyn Baker brought a Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights to the meeting, saying they guaranteed her freedom. “The real clown show is that you guys think you can actually mandate this,” she said. After, Hineman tweeted, the crowd “loses it with cheers and whoops in support.”
But what do the kids think? We’ve got hundreds of reporters in communities across the country asking just that. What we’ve heard consistently: Kids just want to stay in school.
Arizona has a law forbidding school mask mandates. The Phoenix Union High School District, defying the law, said it would require them indoors anyway.
On the first day of school earlier this month at the Academies at South Mountain, our reporters found nearly all students entering were masked, and many of those who were unmasked were carrying one. The school is located in a community disproportionately harmed by the pandemic through job loss, cases, deaths and vaccine disparity.
“It’s fine by me if it keeps everyone safe,” senior Eliel Acevedo told Arizona Republic reporters Megan Taros and Andrew Favakeh. “I heard about the delta variant and I’m not sure how that’s going to go, but honestly I think in a month or so they’ll have to close down because of it.”
Uriah Robinson told them he wasn’t happy about wearing a mask but would comply with the policy. “It’s too hot to wear a mask,” Robinson said. “But I don’t really have a choice.”
Louisville (Kentucky) Courier Journal reporter Mandy McLaren spent the first day of school Wednesday at The Academy @ Shawnee. “I can tell you that the high schoolers I spent the day with didn’t really seem phased by the masks,” she said. “One girl said she’d rather wear it if it meant her school could stay open, though she wished they got a break during the day to go outside and take it off.”
Wednesday, Sarah May Seward from White Lake, Michigan, addressed another population of students: those with weakened immune systems, said Detroit Free Press education reporter Lily Altavena.
“My daughter is vaccinated,” she said at a fiery meeting of the state board of education, talking about how some students face graver COVID-19 consequences. “She could still get pneumonia from just the sniffles. We’re completely forgetting about the kids that have special needs and disabilities in this whole thing.”
In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, nine of the 18 schools in the Lamar County School District are now virtual while trying to get cases under control, wrote Hattiesburg American reporter Laurel Thrailkill. At least 1,617 district students were quarantined for the week of July 31-Aug. 6, according to the district’s website, and 218 tested positive. When they return to campus, it will be a hybrid schedule with some virtual learning days and some in-person days each week.
And that’s the fear for many students and parents.
“We cannot go through this again,” Seward said. “This is her senior year, and she is going to be forced to miss it … and this is all because people are refusing to wear masks.”
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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe here.
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