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Families, Teachers Fret Over Delta Variant as Schools Reopen

Bay Area students are beginning to head back to school for the start of the fall semester, with some seeing the inside of a classroom for the first time in 18 months.

It’s a big moment, but the timing couldn’t be worse.COVID-19 cases are spiking across the region, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant. California is now averaging more than 10,000 new cases a day, about a 10-fold increase from a month ago. In several Bay Area counties, hundreds of people are testing positive daily.

And that has a lot of parents, teachers and school officials justifiably worried.

Rough Start

Just three days after classes resumed in Brentwood, on the eastern edge of Contra Costa County, dozens of students and staff had to quarantine. The Brentwood school district’s dashboard Monday showed 12 students and one staff member from eight of its 11 schools had contracted the virus. School leaders say the outbreak originated in the surrounding community, not inside classrooms.

“School districts merely represent the communities they live in,” said Brentwood Union School District Superintendent Dana Eaton. “We expect to have a similar percentage of students and staff members in our school that are COVID positive.”

Cases Vary Dramatically for Kids

Most little kids who catch the virus are asymptomatic. Some battle something like the common cold — maybe with a runny nose and cough. For older kids, COVID-19 can feel more like the flu. And although it’s rarely very serious for children, there are exceptions.

Across the country, at least 44,000 kids, from newborns to 17 year olds, have been hospitalized over the past year, and 416 have died since the beginning of the pandemic last March, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We can’t predict who’s going to get a bad case,” said Dr. Ann Petru, an infection control officer at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. She stresses that vaccinations are the best protection against serious disease for those eligible to receive a shot, and also the best way to protect children under 12 who can’t yet get one.

The current surge is especially stressful for people with vulnerable family members. Susana Villanueva Torres lost her sister to COVID-19 last October. Now she’s caring for her sister’s 11-year-old son, David, in addition to her own teenage son.

Recently she received additional painful news: Her husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that weakens the immune system. She worries her boys may catch COVID at their Oakland schools and bring the virus home.

“You guys need to be aware, you need to wear your mask at all times. You know we need to take care of dad [and] tio (uncle),” Torres says she frequently tells her son and nephew.

Torres is scared. But she knows her boys are counting on seeing their friends and teachers, and she says in person school also helps distract David from dwelling on the loss of his mother.

How Bad is Delta?

The delta variant is much more contagious than the original strain of the virus. It appears to be spreading two to three times faster, and early research from China shows that people who catch it have, on average, about 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than those who contracted the original bug.

“The reason the delta variant could potentially be more virulent or more deadly, more disease-causing, is that it reaches much higher levels of virus in the body,” Dr. Celine Gounder, an epidemiologist at NYU Medical School, said recently on the Ezra Klein Podcast. “It’s replicating so quickly. There’s so much of the virus in the nose, in the throat, in the lungs. And so this may be why the delta variant could be causing more severe disease.”

Nationwide, more than 72,000 children tested positive for the virus in the last week of July alone, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That’s about 19% of the total number of new cases across the country.

“We are definitely seeing a big surge,” said Petru, from Children’s Hospital in Oakland. “We have around 10% of our kids testing positive now, which is compared to 1-2% at the end of May and early June. We also have a significant jump in the number of patients who are hospitalized with COVID.”

Petru says there are currently a handful of teenagers connected to ventilators in her hospital’s intensive care unit, fighting for their lives.

“They’re very, very sick,” said Petru, noting that all of them are also morbidly obese. “And it doesn’t have to be that way. They’re old enough that they could have gotten the vaccines.”

Petru fears her hospital will be overwhelmed in the near future because the emergency department is already backlogged.

To make matters worse, the delta variant is spiking just as common respiratory viruses like the rhinovirus and enterovirus are also starting to take hold in California. Common bugs that cause runny noses and colds are only likely to get worse as summer turns to fall.

Benefits of School Still Outweigh Risks

However, public health officials and school leaders are not considering closing schools. They learned a lot of hard lessons during the pandemic. Isolation is not good for any of us, especially children — a fact underscored by the spike in emergency room visits among kids for mental health issues over the last 18 months.

“We know now that the benefits of being in school for children far outweigh the risks,” said Dr. Sunitha Kaiser, a UCSF pediatrician, epidemiologist and professor. Most students have a stronger academic experience in person — many fell behind during distance learning last year. And at school, many also have access to mental health support to help them recover from pandemic-related trauma.

Dr. Kaiser recommends a multi-layered approach to keep everyone safe inside schools. That includes vaccinating, masking, social distancing, ventilation, testing, contact tracing and ensuring anyone who has symptoms stays home.

“We know that most kids are getting COVID at home and from close household contacts and family members,” Kaiser said. “The best way to boost safety for kids is for their close household contacts and family members to get vaccinated.”

Unvaccinated Californians can go to or call (833) 422-4255 to schedule their appointment or go to to find a walk-in clinic in their county.

Copyright 2021 KQED