Analysis: Could the delta variant stop a ‘normal’ school year before it starts?

(UPDATED, 9:31 a.m. Friday, with corrected county vaccination numbers.)

School will be different this fall. More like normal.

That’s the hope — or the assumption — shared by parents, students, teachers and administrators.

Does the latest coronavirus variant challenge this hope and shake this assumption?

As the delta variant becomes the predominant form of coronavirus in the United States, some health officials say this more contagious strain could pose added threats — to schools, and to children who cannot get vaccinated. “(It’s) one of the most dangerous time periods (in the pandemic) for people who aren’t vaccinated,” Taylor Nelson, a University of Missouri doctor and infectious disease specialist, told The 74, a national web-based education news site.

Despite the national alarms, Idaho education leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new strain. The State Board of Education has not discussed the delta variant and has no discussion scheduled, spokesman Mike Keckler said. State superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s State Department of Education says it is monitoring new virus strains and is “(continuing) to provide the most up-to-date information and guidance to districts and schools.” Gov. Brad Little’s office has had “preliminary” conversations about the variant, and whether it makes sense to revisit Idaho’s 2020 school reopening protocols, education adviser Greg Wilson said.

“I think it’s kind of early,” Wilson said Wednesday, less than two months before students will return to classrooms. “l think a lot of us are kind of watching how this plays out.”

The case numbers — and the summer outbreaks

As with many coronavirus stories, this is a numbers story. And as is often the case, the numbers send mixed signals.

  • Idaho’s new case numbers continue to recede. Idaho reported 485 new cases for the week ending Friday; according to Idaho Education News’ tracking, it’s the first time since June 2020 that this number fell below 500.
  • Idaho has pinpointed only four cases of the delta variant. The state is ramping up capacity, but sequencing coronavirus samples is costly and time-consuming, and there’s lag time, said Dr. David Pate, the retired CEO of the St. Luke’s Health Care System, and a member of Little’s coronavirus working group. The state’s number is almost certainly too low. “I simply look at that as the floor,” Pate said.
  • The Centers for Disease Control says the delta variant is now the predominant coronavirus strain in the United States, accounting for 52 percent of domestic cases reported in a two-week period ending Saturday. A month ago, the variant accounted for only 10 percent of new U.S. cases.

Nationally, the delta variant is clearly on the move. But should Idaho education leaders be particularly worried about it, when circumstances can change before the start of school?

Again, the answers are complicated.

The virus has moved quickly within some groups of kids — at summer camps in Texas and Illinois, at a kindergarten class in Reno, Nev. And there are signs that this particular strain of virus spreads more easily, through the air or through brief contact, Pate said.

But there is also abundant evidence that suggests COVID-19 vaccines combat the new strain, reducing the risk of severe disease or death.

Provided, of course, that people are vaccinated.

The vaccination numbers — and the ‘two Idahos’

The rising delta variant numbers feed into a national coronavirus summer narrative. The new strain appears to be taking more of a foothold in red states with low vaccination rates, as opposed to blue states where the vaccination numbers are higher.

This “two Americas” narrative applies in Idaho as well, as vaccination rates vary widely.

In Blaine County — the state’s bluest county, which overwhelmingly backed President Joe Biden in November — a whopping 78 percent of residents ages 12 and above are fully vaccinated. No other county vaccination rate comes close.

In 16 rural counties — which all supported former President Donald Trump in November — the vaccination rates linger below 35 percent.

For kids, vaccination rates are at their lowest. While Idaho’s overall vaccination rate comes in at 44 percent, only 13 percent of the state’s 12- to 15-year-olds are vaccinated. “That’s not much protection for a population of people,” Pate said.

A new variable, heading into the fall

With K-12 schools and colleges and universities in summer mode, it’s unclear how the delta variant will affect fall operations.

  • The West Ada School District didn’t directly address the delta variant in its new coronavirus protocols, approved in June, spokeswoman Char Jackson said this week. The policy lifted West Ada’s mask mandate.
  • The Coeur d’Alene School District hasn’t discussed the variant yet, as a new superintendent and two assistant superintendents start their jobs. “It’s reset time,” spokesman Scott Maben said. In 2020-21, Coeur d’Alene’s high schools logged some of the highest coronavirus case numbers in the K-12 system.
  • “At this time, there are no enhanced safety measures specifically for the delta variant, though we continue to follow public health recommendations related to all strains of COVID,” Boise State University spokesman Mike Sharp said Thursday. “However, we are in regular communication with public health professionals and our medical advisers to ensure we are taking the appropriate steps to keep our community healthy and safe.”
  • The University of Idaho has made no changes in its plan to resume full operations in August. “We continue to monitor and will make any changes to our plan later in the summer, if needed,” spokeswoman Jodi Walker said this week.

Pate is concerned, however. From his perspective, school officials don’t seem to be doing enough to plan for a virus that might be more aggressive than its predecessor. Even if young people are less likely to get severely ill, or less likely to die from the new strain, schools could become the focal point for community outbreaks, especially in areas with low vaccination rates.

Since its arrival in 2020, the coronavirus has confounded and confused even the experts.

Pate admits he was thrown off in the spring. He expected the United Kingdom-based alpha variant to lead to a spike in Idaho cases — just as it had done in states such as Michigan. The Idaho spike never arrived, and a turbulent 2020-21 academic year ended relatively smoothly. K-12 and college case numbers never came close to their peaks from late fall.

Pate would rather see schools overreact than to rely on another lucky break.

“I acknowledge I could be wrong. Maybe we’re going to luck out again,” he said Thursday. “(But) let’s just prepare for it.”

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. 

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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