Despite the current surge in cases amongst youth, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), predicts that all schools nationwide will be fully in person and no longer remote by September 2021. “We should anticipate, come September 2021, that schools should be full-fledged in person and all of our children back in the classroom,” Walensky told ABC News in an interview Wednesday. Walensky added that this can be anticipated regardless of whether or not children are vaccinated.
“We can vaccinate teachers, we can test, there’s so much we can do,” she said. In regards to when she expects children to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Walensky said that with recent studies indicating that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for children between the ages of 12 to 15, she believes children can get vaccinated as early as May.
Her anticipation that schools will open nationwide by this fall comes at a time of concern that children are spreading coronavirus at a rapid rate, and a White House briefing in which Walensky urged caution amid fears of a fourth wave. “We know that these increases are due, in part, to more highly transmissible variants, which we are very closely monitoring,” Walensky said at the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing on Monday. She also noted that “many outbreaks in young people are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities,” including those that involve parents.
In one incident, at least 38 people tested positive after a high school wrestling tournament according to a CDC report published in January. In Minnesota, the B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-CoV-2 has spread with at least 68 cases linked to youth sports activities including hockey, wrestling, and basketball, the Minnesota Department of Health found.
Health officials believe the informal nature of sports, including children being playful and letting their guard down, has contributed to the increase in exposure. As a result of potential COVID-19 exposure through sports, the CDC has recommended children limit youth sport participation at this time. For those who are engaging in sports, it has listed guidelines to minimize contact.
“We’re finding out that it’s the team sports where kids are getting together, obviously many without masks, that are driving it, rather than in the classroom spread,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, lead coronavirus expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Good Morning America. “When you go back and take a look and try and track where these clusters of cases are coming from in the school, it’s just that.”
According to Fauci, while lower than the peak of cases earlier this year, the lack of any continued significant decrease in infections is cause for concern, CNN reported. “It’s almost a race between getting people vaccinated and this surge that seems to want to increase,” Fauci said Wednesday.
As young adults are increasingly being infected, hospitalizations and even some deaths have occurred, NBC News reported. This is tied to not only misconceptions that children are less likely to be impacted by the virus, but also an increase in youth activities returning to “normal.” But despite the concerns about spread and children not yet being vaccinated, Walensky is certain children will return to school by September and advises parents to be prepared.
According to CNN, about three-quarters of U.S. public schools are open for full-time in-person or hybrid learning. Health experts are hopeful that the vaccine will be available for children in the coming months, but still encourage everyone—vaccinated or not—to continue to abide by health care recommendations.
“We need to be able to offer people who are vaccinated things that they are able to do if we want people to come forward and get vaccinated: visit with their loved ones, visit their grandchildren, perhaps travel on a plane at lower risk. That’s an individual message,” Walensky told ABC News. “While we have fully vaccinated 19% of the population, 80% of the population remains unvaccinated and that is certainly enough to cause a surge. And so on a population level, we still very much need to practice good public health measures — masking mitigation, distancing.”
While it is unclear what the future holds and whether or not children will be vaccinated before returning to school, following safety precautions is of the utmost importance. Yes, more Americans are being vaccinated than infected daily, but that does not make this virus any less serious. Different variants are emerging and it’s important for us to continue to abide by safety precautions that allow for slower or less spread.
It’s difficult to continue to restrict children from resuming outdoor activities and sports, but it’s important to ensure that if they do these activities, they practice health safety. From wearing masks to not sharing snacks and drinks, parents can help children decrease the chance of spread while staying active.