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WASHINGTON — The nation’s tenuous progress in reopening classrooms for in-person instruction has encountered a new foe: the B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus, which is both more transmissible and more potent than the original, or wild type, strain that emerged in late 2019.
Public health officials are trying to prepare school districts as B.1.1.7, which recently became the prevalent strain of the coronavirus in the United States, proliferates through Wisconsin, Michigan and other states.
Speaking during a Friday briefing of the White House COVID-19 response team, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky made a distinction between cases that originate in schools, which is rare, and cases brought into schools from the outside community.
“As cases increase in the community,” Walensky said, “we expect that cases identified in schools will also increase. This is not necessarily indicative of school-based transmission.”
Even when an educator or student brings the coronavirus into a school, an actual outbreak is rare, but schools across the country have tended to approach the issue with caution. In New York City, for example, schools have had to close over the appearance of two cases, leading to inconsistent in-person instruction. Mayor Bill de Blasio raised the threshold for school closure earlier this week.
Walensky has been a consistent supporter of schools opening both this spring and next fall, even as holdout districts remain across the country, leaving millions of children confined to computer screens.
“We have not yet seen evidence of significant transmission of COVID-19 within schools when schools have fully implemented CDC guidance,” Walensky said on Friday. The centerpiece of that guidance is universal masking, as well as spacing students in classrooms at a distance of 3 feet, washing hands, opening windows and holding outdoor classes whenever possible.
Walensky also reiterated that schools are set to receive $10 billion from the Biden administration for diagnostic coronavirus testing. Rapid testing could prove an especially valuable tool for schools, as it would allow for near-instantaneous virus detection, but it is not yet widely available across the United States.
A more widely deployed tool has been the coronavirus vaccines, which some 80 percent of teachers and school staff have received, according to a CDC announcement made earlier this week. Those vaccines appear to be effective against variants of the coronavirus, especially when it comes to preventing hospitalization and death.
Walensky’s message was as obvious as the measures she touted, but whether it will be enough to keep schools open remains unclear. A resurgence of the coronavirus — likely led by increased dominance of B.1.1.7 — has already led to school closures in Toronto, as well as across France.
Walensky did say that public health officials had observed “increasing cases associated with youth sports,” a reprisal of a warning she made earlier in the week. That means that Little League and other youth sports may have to be sacrificed in parts of the country in order to keep schools open. There is widespread belief that if bars and restaurants had stayed closed longer, schools would have opened earlier.
Such trade-offs have become a hallmark of the pandemic, leading to contentious debates about what constitutes essential services.
President Biden has promised to open the majority of K-8 schools for in-person instruction by the 100th day of his presidency, which will come at the end of April.
Right now, about 53 percent of American children are attending in-person school five days a week, according to Burbio, which charts school reopenings and includes high schools in its figures. About 16 percent of students are fully remote, and 31 percent are in a “hybrid” model.
A new surge fueled by a more transmissible variant could imperil or reverse that progress, putting an important political and social goal of the Biden administration out of reach.
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