The Delta Variant & Back-To-School: Here's What We Know Today
In terms of regaining a sense of normalcy, things were looking up this summer: safe social gatherings (maybe even a hug or two), unmasked trips to the grocery store, and other little pre-pandemic pleasantries we once took for granted. Then came the delta variant—just in time for back-to-school. Considering kids under 12 are unable to get vaccinated, the looming question "To Zoom or not to Zoom?" is a growing concern for parents.
It's no secret both parents and kids struggled during the virtual school year, so it makes sense that another wave of positive infection rates would make families feel, to put it lightly, unsteady. That's why we turned to Emily Oster, Ph.D., a parenting expert and professor of economics at Brown University who penned the upcoming book The Family Firm, which focuses on parents' decision-making during the early school years. Oster has also compiled thought-provoking data points around the future of education, especially with our new challenge of the delta strain.
To be clear: Our goal here is not to sway your child care decision one way or the other. We're not here to give answers; we only encourage you to look at the data (which Oster helps us comb through on the mindbodygreen podcast) and make an informed decision for your family. We're learning about this virus in real time, so it's up to us to keep tabs on the evolving research. But for today, timestamped August 9, here's what we know.
The delta variant & kids: What the research says.
In general, kids are considered low-risk for serious illness with COVID-19. Plenty of research has shown this, including one study on around 1,700 symptomatic COVID-19 cases in children1. In this study, researchers found the most common symptoms in children were headache and fatigue; the average duration of symptoms was six days, with 75% of children having symptoms for a week or less.
In terms of the delta variant, "It's a more contagious virus, which means it is spreading more among all people, but it is not spreading relatively more among kids," says Oster. She cites evidence from the U.K., which shows that the positive test rate for unmasked (the unmasked part is often not reported) children up to age 11 did increase a little bit at the height of the delta surge (2%, to be exact1) but not nearly as high as the positive test rates in young adults (who are more likely to be vaccinated). "We're seeing a lot of evidence suggesting it's the same kind of story with kids—that they're very low-risk for mortality from this [virus]," says Oster.
Of course, kids can still become infected with COVID-19—and some can even have severe illness—but the probability of that is low. And the probability of contracting the infection at school or child care programs? It's really low. We need more data on the delta variant specifically to make a confident call, but from the research we do have, children have a similar story across strains.
So what should we do about school?
First and foremost: "The best way to protect [kids] is to surround them with vaccinated adults," says Oster. As she elaborates in her newsletter, "Household transmission is a much more common vector for children, meaning vaccinating people in the household is your most important prevention strategy."
In terms of deciding what to do with school or child care, it can be difficult to put the data into practice and actually use it to land on one choice. As Oster explains in her newsletter, this is because there are so many factors swirling around in our brains at one time—risk of transmission, risk of other people having COVID, risk of serious illness, etc.—that make it hard to wrap your head around. So, she says to simplify your thought process by focusing on just one element: the risk of your child getting COVID. What would you decide if your child had a 20% risk of getting COVID? What about 1%? What about 10%?
Everyone draws the line differently, but isolating the risk in this hypothetical way can help inform your decision before looking at the actual risks from the data. Again, the actual data isn't 100% certain, and most of it is pre-delta variant, but the research we have suggests low risk (just one example: A study in North Carolina covering 90,000 students and staff found 32 instances of probable in-school transmission over a period of nine weeks). And if the actual rate is lower or higher than the hypothetical number you're comfortable with, well, you may have an answer for your family.
Oster also admits she has become more careful with mask-wearing and social gatherings once again—just so she can minimize the risk in her own household as much as possible.
How you feel about sending your child to school (masked or virtually) is your own decision—only you can say what's best for your family, and no one should try to force you one way or the other. That said, before you make your personal choice, it's helpful to look at the existing data. With that knowledge, you can weigh the pros and cons of an in-person school year (both mental and physical).