The number of COVID-19 outbreaks in Tucson schools is steadily increasing, with the more contagious delta variant and many schools unable to enact mask mandates and other mitigation measures.
The frequency of outbreaks is exponentially worse than last school year, says Heather McGovern, epidemiology program manager for the Pima County Health Department.
“It’s really bad,” she said. “Last year we had layered mitigation. We had masking, we had hybrid, we had social distancing, schools were putting a lot of effort towards keeping windows open, sanitizing, stuff like that. No sporting activities, no extracurricular activities where people from different grades were coming together to coalesce. All of that went out of the window. And so now there’s no mitigation, including no compulsory masking. And so it’s uncontrolled spread at this point.”
There have been 489 cases and 25 outbreaks in Pima County schools, since July 20. The number of cases and outbreaks in schools have about doubled in the last week since the majority of Tucson schools opened.
Outbreaks, which are two or more cases that were likely transmitted within the school setting, are not the only reason classrooms close. Schools also close classrooms if everyone in the classroom has been exposed and needs to quarantine.
In Pima County school districts last week, there were a number of classroom closures for either of these reasons, including two classrooms in Sunnyside, one in Amphi and five in the Marana school district.
“Cases are spreading very rapidly,” McGovern said. “Delta is a different beast than what we were dealing with late last year, and the transmissibility is 10 times higher than what we were dealing with in the spring.”
While mitigation measures are much more limited than last year, with a recent state law banning schools from requiring masks, packed classrooms that have no room to social distance and no funding for hybrid learning, the county Health Department is working with schools on an individual basis to strengthen any mitigation measures schools can still access.
Vail, which has been open since July 20, has already had numerous classroom closures due to outbreaks.
Additional staffers both to help spread out students to different parts of campus and to help those who have to go to remote learning while in quarantine would be helpful, says Vail’s Deputy Superintendent Debbie Penn.
The district, like others, is not only handling the business of running schools and educating children at the capacity of a typical school year, but it also has to deal with the difficulty of numerous students needing intermittent periods of remote learning.
Penn says they’re making do, but that it’s a heavy workload.
Last school year, transmission within schools was relatively low, which experts say was due to all the mitigations measures, primarily universal masking and social distancing. Along with increasing outbreaks in schools, the state is seeing a rise in hospitalizations of children because of COVID-19 as well.
Cases in children are rising because of the more contagious delta variant, “which now makes it far easier for children to infect each other through close transmission of respiratory droplets … and also to infect their teachers, the personnel at school and to bring that virus home and infect their families,” says Dr. Sean P. Elliott, emeritus professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Although the risk for long-COVID and severe illness is more rare in children, the delta variant is a “game changer,” said Elliott, who is a practicing pediatric infectious disease specialist, seeing children with COVID-19 both at an in-clinic hospital setting and in an emergency department. He sees children with the virus who have long-hauler symptoms, who have lost all sense of taste, and who have extreme fatigue.
“All these are extreme, and these are kids who are highly productive, student athletes, you name it, who are now completely out of commission,” he said.
As well, with 34 children in the state who have died of COVID-19, Arizona is second in the country for highest number of pediatric deaths after Texas, Elliott said
The best prevention for COVID-19 and severe illness is the vaccine, for those who are eligible, he said. For children under 12 and others who are unvaccinated, the best way to protect them from getting COVID-19 is universal mask-wearing.
“I absolutely support it, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics, as does every scientific organization so far on record in this country,” he said. “The use of masks universally protects us from transmitting this disease. That’s how we can get through this pandemic. Absolutely, that’s what we need to do in the school setting.”
A growing number of school districts and colleges in the state are requiring universal mask usage on campuses, defying the recently enacted state law. And on Thursday, a coalition of school board members, educators, child welfare advocates and others filed a complaint, asking a judge to void a host of recent changes in state law, including the ban on mask mandates in schools.
State schools chief Kathy Hoffman correlated the rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools to the new law and during a press conference Aug. 11 called for it to be repealed.
“Before the new school year even started, the GOP-led Legislature and governor passed and signed a very shortsighted and irresponsible law that prevents mask mandates in schools, which is taking away the local control and preventing our school leaders from implementing policies that they need to keep their communities safe,” she said.