Back to school, but not back to normal

Weighing the cost of coming back to school in a pandemic.

As of August 2021, 17 months have passed since school first closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19. Arlington Public Schools (APS) is set to open fully for the 2021-2022 school year. However, students and parents have raised concerns about the validity of this decision due to emerging concerns about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. 

In April 2021, the COVID-19 vaccine was made available to the public in Arlington County. For many, it felt like a miracle. Only six to seven  weeks after receiving the first dose of the vaccine, people could see their families and friends, go to school and feel comfortable in public without fear of transmitting or contracting the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is  far from over. Four  months later, COVID-19 deaths have begun to rise nationally and locally for the first time in months, despite a higher than average local vaccination rate. On August 12, 2021, the vaccination rate in Arlington County for people 12 and older was 71.5%. Arlington’s numbers far surpass the national average of 57% vaccinated people. 

Contrary to the coverage  of several conservative news outlets, the rising COVID-19 death toll is not caused by “vaccines gone wrong.” Instead, the deaths are caused by something experts are calling the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Instead of following instructions by the CDC, epidemiologists, and pretty much anyone with more than three functioning brain cells, many people in the U.S. did not get the vaccine. Unsurprisingly, some of them died (which is exactly what the scientists said would happen). 

Some blame the rise in COVID-19 deaths on the Delta variant, and they are not completely wrong. Yes, Delta has caused a spike in deaths in the country. However, according to AP News, more than 99% of deaths from coronavirus in the U.S. in May were among unvaccinated people. Unvaccinated people have also accounted for 98% of hospitalizations. Statistically, breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people are incredibly rare, and severe cases in vaccinated people are even more unlikely. 

Long story short, the vaccines are working. So what does this mean for us?

On August 12, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam issued a mask mandate for all K-12 Virginia schools. This mandate is one of many that APS will implement within schools this fall, including requirements for teachers and faculty to get a COVID-19 vaccine or receive daily testing to reduce transmission. 

Between the vaccination rates in Arlington County and the measures mandated by APS to prevent transmission, it is reasonable for students to be attending school in full capacity this fall. Vaccines are working. Most, if not all, precautions being taken are to protect unvaccinated people from the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is much more communicable and deadlier than earlier variants. As a high school student you can get COVID-19 if you are vaccinated, but it most likely will not get you severely sick. 

However, erring on the side of caution this year is still important. The COVID-19 situation may change. Other, more vaccine-resistant, variants of coronavirus could emerge and send us all back into lockdown. But as long as current APS guidelines stay in place, students should look forward to a safe and enjoyable, albeit abnormal, 2021-2022 school year.