'We need to change our thinking' to keep schools open amid Delta surge

August 30, 2021
Elementary school age boy looking bored wearing a purple mask and siting by a laptop computer.
Most kids fare better when they attend school in person, research shows. iStock

Allison Eckard, M.D., works with school districts in and around the Lowcountry to try to help them protect students and staff as the Delta variant drives up case numbers. But in just the first couple of weeks, the Charleston County School District alone racked up about 700 cases. In neighboring Berkeley County, they’ve had more than 1,000.

“The virus is out of control,” the infectious diseases specialist at MUSC Children’s Health said. “At this point, you have a variant that is maybe 90% more infectious than the original strain. You have so many more cases at school, you have fewer children wearing masks and children are less spaced apart than they were last year. This is a recipe for disaster in terms of an exponential growth of cases among school-aged children. And we are seeing that.”

Eckard, who also serves as medical director for MUSC Health’s Back2Business program for schools, said she’s working closely with individual schools to give them real-time advice — and hears how worried their leaders are. “Many private schools and school districts are coming to me saying that they are seeing case numbers like they've never seen before, and they're on the verge of closing.”

Part of the problem is that they’re having trouble contact tracing in some cases because the overall numbers are so high, she said. And when the schools do try to contact trace, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Ellen Nitz, director of nursing services for the Charleston County School District, said people are tired of COVID — and it shows. 

“Last year, when we started our contact tracing, families would say, ‘Thank you so much. We really appreciate what you're doing, thanks for keeping everybody safe.’ And now when we tell someone that they have to quarantine or even isolate, we get some feedback from our families, saying they're tired of this and their kids need to be in school,” Nitz said.

That pushback is happening as the Tri-county area hits its highest COVID case numbers of the pandemic. Eckard said it’s time for more families to take the situation seriously. 

“We need to change our thinking now, for a short period of time.This isn't going to last forever. The Delta surge is expected to peak by middle or late September. So we're not talking about wearing a mask for the next 12 months. We're talking about altering your behavior and stepping up what you do as an individual and as a family, maybe for the next couple of months, that's it,” Eckard said.

“One of the biggest problems is that people are continuing to do their normal activity outside of school. It’s very high risk — sleepovers, parties, sports, travel. Those are all contributing to an increase in numbers, along with low vaccination rates and the pushback against wearing masks in school or out in public.”

Nitz agreed. “If everybody out there would do their part and stay socially distant, wear their masks and stay home when they're not feeling well, that would make a huge, huge difference.”

That could not only help keep schools open, but also keep more kids from ending up in the hospital. “We have seen more ICU admissions and children on ventilators than the entire rest of the pandemic combined. It is awful,” Eckard said. “I wish more people would recognize the seriousness of the situation.”

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About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: COVID-19, Pediatrics