Back to school and the Delta variant: What you need to know

Prince George’s schools will reopen September 8. Students and parents are concerned about the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo by Mustafa Omar on Unsplash

All students are required to wear masks indoors under the masks mandate.

Virginia Bates, Editor-in-Chief

Back-to-school 2021 marks the third academic year that the education of Maryland’s million students has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The opening of schools this next month — including Prince George’s County on September 8 — is unfolding under the shadow of the surging Delta variant, replacing much of the joy and relief that families had anticipated with new concerns about masks, positive coronavirus tests, illness, vaccines, quarantines, and outbreaks.

Principal Dr. Brown’s Opening Newsletter, sent out earlier this week to all staff and families, emphasizes the day is when the school building finally reopens to all students.

His newsletter includes vital information for starting a successful school year.

“We look forward to engaging with each of you as we continue to ensure that all of our Jaguars graduate college and career ready.” Dr. Brown says in an email attached to the newsletter.

He explains Charles Herbert Flowers’s mask policies, cleaning and sanitizing measures through the school days, special dates, and updates to the school uniform with other general information.

Still, there are a lot of questions and concerns from parents and students as COVID-19 is still the center of attention this academic year.

Fear not, CHFHSnews staff are here to answer your questions.

Teachers at Charles Herbert Flowers High School wearing masks

What are the key protocols that must be in place as schools reopen in Maryland?


The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its updated recommendations for K-12 schools on July 19. The guidance is meant to provide a path to safe in-person instruction while minimizing missed school days. It suggests universal masking in schools, targeted quarantine practices, and access to a robust coronavirus testing program.

Above all, Prince George’s County Health Department stresses vaccination for all eligible individuals and masking in classrooms and school buildings as the most effective methods to prevent in-school transmission of the coronavirus.

“Preparation, leadership, and forward-thinking of CEO Dr. Monica Goldson is strong in preparing for the school year. Universal masking, staff vaccination mandate and increased vaccination of adults and eligible children will increase safety”. said Dr. George Askew, the Deputy Chief Administrator Officer for Health, Human Services, and Education.

Here are the basics you should expect to see at school:

  • All students and staff being required to wear face masks on school grounds.
  • Free vaccination clinics through PG County.
  • Although neither the state nor the CDC requires physical distancing, schools are urged to keep students distanced as much as possible. When masks are not being used, such as when students are eating or drinking, physical distancing becomes more important, even essential, in the view of some experts.
  • Recommendations also call on schools to optimize ventilation in indoor spaces. Ideally, this means your school has installed high-grade MERV-13 filters on HVAC systems, although not all HVAC units can work effectively with these filters. Portable air purifiers also are being used in some cases. Even just opening one or more windows helps with ventilation.
  • Facilities to be cleaned daily.
  • Increased hand-washing is expected.

These “layers” of safety, as officials call the measures, go a long way toward making schools safe, experts say.

 

What is the state mask mandate? How is it enforced?


Maryland does not have a mask mandate however the city of Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties outside Washington, D.C., have reimposed local orders requiring most people, vaccinated or not, to wear face coverings in indoor public settings.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks announced that the County will reinstitute an indoor public mask mandate due to a continued rise in COVID-19 metrics. The mandate went into effect in early August and applies to vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

The new mandate is based on the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that individuals in areas with “high” or “substantial” transmission of COVID-19 should wear masks in indoor public settings, even if they are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, Prince George’s County is now in the “substantial” transmission category.

The state Board of Education decided Thursday, Aug 24, Maryland students, staff, and school visitors will be required to wear masks when they go to school this year. The vote came as the number of COVID-19 cases surges in the state and nationwide.

The order will last 180 days, and the board can rescind it during that time if it chooses. Some members said masks are necessary to preserve in-person learning, to keep kids from getting sick and having to quarantine.

While the state doesn’t require masking, mask enforcement on campus is left to schools. The Prince George’s County Health Department’s mask rules for schools are as follows:

  • Masks are optional outdoors.
  • K-12 students are required to mask indoors (with exemptions for children younger than 2 or those who have a medical condition).
  • Exempted individuals are expected to wear a nonrestrictive alternative such as a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge.

How will lunch work?


To ensure safety for all students, meals will be individually packaged, distributed, and served in the cafeteria or in spaces determined by the school administration. Weather and space permitting, meals may be taken outside. Cafeterias and other meal locations will be cleaned and disinfected daily.

Note: Meals are free for all students this year!

 

Should kids wear N95 masks?


That’s not necessary. Disposable surgical masks or cloth masks with at least two layers are fine, experts say.

“The best mask is one the child will keep on,” said Dr. Sara Bode, a pediatrician who directs school health services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics’ COVID-19 guidance for schools.

It might make sense for students to pack more than one mask because masks can get dirty or soiled. One untimely sneeze could do it. Keep in mind that masks come in many forms. Some children find the ear loops uncomfortable and prefer tie-on masks. Rubber frames can be inserted to make breathing more comfortable.

Also, schools are supposed to have extra masks available, even on school buses. If they don’t, parents should speak up.

 

Should parents sanitize book bags and other items when kids come home from school?


No. “At first, it looked like a virus that would spread on surfaces,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “But now we know that it is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets.”

 

What’s the risk for unvaccinated kids, and what’s the latest on pediatric infections?


Unvaccinated children are at risk of contracting a coronavirus infection, which, if symptoms develop, would be classified as COVID-19. And although severe illness can occur among infected children, it is rare.

Other risks include multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, an extremely rare, potentially fatal, condition that can occur after a coronavirus infection. So-called long COVID — after-effects of illness — can persist for weeks or months among small numbers of children, just as with adults.

The possibility of infection has become a growing back-to-school concern.

Because Delta is so highly transmissible, “you will see more children likely get infected,” Fauci said at a recent briefing. And “even though the percentage is small — a certain percentage of children will require hospitalization.”

The County’s positivity rate is 4.6% as of August 1, up from 0.9% on July 5. The average daily case rate has increased to 11.0 cases per 100,000 residents as of August 1, the highest rate observed since May 5. Finally, the County’s infection rate is 1.33 as of July 28, which places the County in the “high risk” range.

 

Is the Delta variant worse for children than previous?


Delta is much more transmissible than other strains, which means it can spread more quickly and affect more people, experts say.

“The increase in number of pediatric cases has mirrored the dominance of the Delta variant,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Kids are very much at risk of this variant.”

The variant’s success may have to do with its ease of spread — but it may also reflect a “decay in the use of public health prevention measures that we know work,” Milstone said, pointing to masking and physical distancing as two examples.

Most children get relatively mild symptoms, but a small share of them do develop more severe diseases that may require hospitalization. One possible reason we’re seeing an increase in hospitalized children: The more contagious Delta variant is simply reaching more kids, including more of those at risk of serious illness.

It’s too soon to say whether the Delta variant causes children with COVID-19 to become sicker than they’d be with other strains, Milstone added.

“It is not clear yet if a) the Delta variant is more severe in kids or if b) more kids are getting sick and thus we are seeing complications at a higher frequency,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, the best course of action is to protect kids from becoming infected with the coronavirus in the first place.

“We still do not know what long-term complications kids might suffer from this infection,” Milstone said. “The safest approach is to protect your child from getting COVID.”

There is no definitive evidence that children are suffering greater severity of disease from the Delta variant, Fauci said, although it remains a possibility.

Virtual Classes Offered In Prince George’s As Delta Variant Rises

Online classes are still possible for some Prince George’s County students. Hybrid schooling is not available this year.

Leaders attributed the new application period to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of coronavirus. The school system cannot guarantee virtual instruction for all applicants, however.

“Adding students will depend on hiring additional staff, which may be challenging so close to the start of the new school year,” officials said in a newsletter. “PGCPS will make every effort to accommodate as many students as possible. However, if there is no space available in the programs, students will be expected to attend classes in person.”

The Virtual Learning Program application did close on Aug. 20 and families will hear back by the end of the month.


Classes start Sept. 8. To see the updated information regarding certain schools or to keep up with school information like CHF, visit www.pgcps.org and https://schools.pgcps.org/charleshflowers/

As information becomes available, we will be using the school messenger system (SCs) to communicate with you as expeditiously as possible. To ensure that you are receiving messages from the SCS, please register using this link.