As schools reopen, children’s coronavirus case numbers double in two months

(UPDATED, 12:33 p.m., Oct. 15, with comment from Sherri Ybarra.)

Coronavirus case numbers for Idaho school-aged children have doubled in two months — exceeding even the state’s rapid increase in cases.

These numbers correlate with the start of the 2020-21 school year, and attempts to reopen K-12 schools to face-to-face instruction.

On Tuesday, the state reported 4,270 coronavirus cases involving 5- to 17-year-old children. No Idaho children have died from COVID-19, which has killed more than 500 Idahoans. Consistent with national and international trends, the majority of Idaho’s COVID-19 deaths have involved patients in their 80s or older.

Nonetheless, coronavirus outbreaks in K-12 schools remain a public health concern — threatening community spread of the contagious virus, and putting teachers and school staff at risk of contracting COVID-19 from students. Weeks into the new academic year, outbreaks have forced numerous schools to scale back face-to-face schedules, shifting to online instruction or a blend of virtual and classroom learning. Last week, the White House’s coronavirus task force said outbreaks in 10 Idaho counties could be tied to school reopenings, and the task force suggested shifting to online instruction.

Last week, the state Department of Health and Welfare reported at least 103 coronavirus cases in K-12 schools, a count that includes students and employees. A week earlier, Health and Welfare issued its initial K-12 case report, counting at least 51 cases for the week.

What the numbers say

To examine the possible connection between coronavirus outbreaks and school reopenings, Idaho Education News looked at the state’s case numbers dating back to Aug. 7, before the start of the academic year.

Here are the snapshots:

  • Overall, Idaho case numbers slowed somewhat in August, but have picked up again since September. On Tuesday, Health and Welfare reported 49,247 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases. Case numbers have more than doubled in this two-month period, a 122 percent increase.
  • Among 5- to 17-year-olds, the increase is even greater, at 139 percent.
  • For preschoolers, children under the age of 5, the increase is 104 percent, lower than the overall spike in case numbers.
  • For 18- to 29-year-olds, an age group that include many of Idaho’s college students, case numbers haven’t quite doubled. Interestingly, the increase comes in at 93 percent — as Idaho colleges and universities wrestle with campus outbreaks and attempt to provide some component of face-to-face learning for fall semester.

In short, Idaho’s coronavirus case numbers are increasing rapidly, across all age groups. However, the increase appears sharpest among school-aged children.

What state officials say

Gov. Brad Little’s office didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for comment on these numbers. Spokeswoman Marissa Morrison Hyer said Little and health officials will discuss the topic during a Thursday news conference.

But during an AARP Idaho telephone town hall meeting Tuesday, Little spoke in general about the uptick in cases. “Our numbers are way too high.”

Little also blamed the recent increase on a number of factors — the Labor Day holiday, reopening K-12 schools and college campuses, and cooler weather that has forced more Idahoans to spend time indoors.

“I hate to be in a position to say I told you so,” he said, “(but) we anticipated this.”

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield echoed Little.

“Coronavirus cases are increasing throughout our country,” she said Wednesday. “It is no surprise that it is occurring within our schools here in Idaho.”

The State Board is monitoring the situation, she said, and is encouraging administrators and trustees to use the state’s school reopening guidelines “to help make good decisions that are best for their local areas.”

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Welfare urged parents and students to take precautions to curb coronavirus: wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, hand-washing frequently, and staying home at any sign of illness or COVID-19 exposure.

In a statement, Health and Welfare emphasized a balance between prevention and education.

“The department recognizes the school setting has a large influence on children’s health and well-being and we support schools as they provide in-person and hybrid learning.”

On Thursday, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said student safety remains her top priority, and said she is “closely following” the effects of the virus.

“With the implementation of additional testing and surveillance protocols, we will learn more with respect to how the pandemic is impacting schools,” she said.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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