After a relatively quiet spring and summer, the U.S. is seeing a surge in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. The increase in serious complications of the virus seems to coincide with the rise of the EG.5 variant (aka Eris), which now makes up more than 20% of new COVID cases in the U.S.
Unfortunately, this increase in cases is happening at the same time as schools reopen their doors across the country. What does this mean for students and staff, and what can parents do to keep their kids safe? Here's what you need to know.
How schools are responding
Many schools across the country aren't yet back in session, but some are. Here's what a few have planned for COVID-19 protocols.
Southern California's Chula Vista Elementary School District is offering free weekly COVID-19 and flu testing as part of a partnership with Campus Clinic. (The district is also offering two free counseling sessions to staff to support mental health.)
Chicago Public Schools is reportedly considering a plan to spend up to $5 million on COVID-19 rapid tests for students and staff. The district is also offering a slew of vaccinations at health clinics.
The Charleston County School District in South Carolina is reportedly offering in-school vaccinations to children with parental consent. A van will travel from school to school to give vaccinations to those who want them.
Mississippi's Monroe County schools plan to fog classrooms and buses on a weekly basis to tackle pathogens. The district has also added family nurse practitioners at schools for COVID-19 testing and wellness checks.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has historically been very conservative with COVID-19 precautions, is encouraging parents to send their kids to school when they have a mild cold or cough in an effort to boost attendance.
What teachers are saying
Teachers across the country have their own thoughts about COVID precautions heading into the 2023-24 school year. To protect their privacy, the teachers who spoke to Yahoo Life asked to not disclose their last names.
Sam, a college professor in Florida, plans to keep his distance from students and will have a policy to excuse students from attending class when they're sick. He doesn't plan to wear a mask. "Masks are hard to wear in classrooms that are too warm," he says. "It's hard to project your voice while wearing a mask. And masks are uncomfortable."
Molly, a high school teacher in New York City, tells Yahoo Life that she felt like she was "the only teacher left at the end of the school year last year wearing my mask." She originally planned not to wear a mask to school this coming year, but with the recent surge, she's not sure. "I definitely plan to take the new booster when it comes out, but I still may wear my mask in the school building," she says. "I may be the only one doing it, but that doesn’t matter to me because my safety and the safety of my loved ones is paramount. I have two elderly parents and visit them every Sunday to do family dinner, so I have to always think about them first."
Aaron, an English teacher in Orange County, Calif., says he plans to wear an N95 or similar mask in class. "I choose to wear a mask, because scientific, peer-reviewed research has shown that, coupled with social distancing, frequent handwashing and hand sanitization, masks are proven to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 particles," he says. Aaron notes that his school district has also provided over-the-counter home COVID-19 rapid tests to staff.
What experts say
Doctors say the increase in COVID-19 cases at the start of the school year isn't ideal, but it shouldn't cause parents to panic. "It doesn't raise an increased level of concern compared to other variants, and it doesn't seem to be causing more severe disease," Dr. Thomas Russo, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "Eris may be a whiff better at evading immunity, though."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, agrees. "Eris is a subvariant of Omicron, and it has the characteristics of Omicron," he tells Yahoo Life. "It's highly transmissible but not apt to produce more serious disease."
Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., cautions that Eris has caused a range of illnesses in patients. "Some kids have had pretty significant illness with this," she says. "On the other hand, some kids have mild cold-like symptoms. Parents just need to be aware that COVID-19 is still out there."
How parents can protect their kids
Fisher recommends going over COVID-19 safety protocols again with your children, since it's likely been a while. That includes talking to them about hand hygiene, encouraging them to steer clear of people who are sick and refraining from picking their nose, which research has shown can raise the risk of getting sick.
"If you know there are high transmission rates and your kid always brings everything home, don't be afraid of masks," Fisher says. "They're a wonderful and fabulous way to prevent the spread of illness." Given that many children won't wear a mask, Fisher suggests making sure your children understand why a mask will help protect them so they can feel better equipped to advocate for themselves and actually keep the mask on.
She also recommends encouraging kids to get enough sleep at night, eat healthy meals and exercise regularly — "the simple things to help the body have its natural defenses."
If your child develops symptoms of COVID-19, Russo says it's important to test them, both to know if you should contact your doctor about getting your child on an antiviral medication and to help protect others.
There will be a new COVID-19 booster available this fall that's better targeted toward the Eris strain, Russo says. "But those boosters are still probably several weeks away," he says. "Many schools will start before they're available."
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