Student infection rates may soar

By: - April 8, 2021 11:43 am
Children wearing protective face masks sit in classroom for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 10, 2020 in Berlin. Classes at schools across Germany are beginning this month with face mask requirements varying by state. Coronavirus infection rates are climbing again in Germany, from an average of 400 new cases per day about two weeks ago to over 1,100 yesterday, according to the Robert Koch Institute. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Children wearing protective face masks sit in classroom for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 10, 2020 in Berlin. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

On April 5, the city of Madison reported that 21 children and daycare workers at one facility came down with the UK COVID variant, B.1.1.7. A recent Examiner article outlined that an increase in this UK or British strain was far more contagious and far more likely to cause serious health complications. 

Because its transmission rate is 50% to 100% greater than the original COVID-19, the B.1.1.7 mutation is already the dominant strand in Wisconsin. Previous evidence showed that, with the original strain, adults were most affected; children were far less likely to get sick from the virus and to transmit it. This new variant has changed all that.

As early as February, the Examiner predicted that the UK variant could infect school-aged children at an even higher rate than adults. This was outlined in a January 2021 Education Week article that referenced a British research article originally published in November 2020 and updated in December. 

Here is what the British study said about the implications for our school systems:

In its final update on December 2, 2020, analysis of the data showed that “children and young people are more likely to bring the virus into the household than those 17+. They were also less likely to catch the virus within the household.” In addition, “Young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household. In particular, those aged 12 to 16 are 7 times as likely to be the first case in their household, compared to those 17+.”

The UK variant or B.1.1.7 is infecting individuals in a dramatically different way than what was discovered when COVID-19 first began. Previously it was thought that students had relatively lower infection rates than adults. Teachers were considered to be far more susceptible to the virus. Now it is the other way around.

Even when children were infected with the original COVD-19, most children were either asymptomatic or had mild reactions. That is not the case with B.1.1.7. Hospitalizations of children have increased with this new strain. 

“B.1.1.7 turns this on its head” Dr. Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota Center of Infection Disease Research and Policy told NBC’s Meet the Press

“These kids now are really our major challenge in terms of how they transmit.” Osterholm has seen 749 Minnesota schools with the B.1.1.7 in just two weeks.

Osterholm previously supported reopening schools; now he believes we may have to shut down again. Wisconsin is sandwiched between states with some of the highest B.1.1.7 infection rates; Michigan and Minnesota are second and third behind Florida; Illinois is number 13. The virus will not stop at the state border.

COVID cases have been rising to in Michigan, where school outbreaks have jumped 23% in just the past week. “In the face of the latest surge, some Michigan schools are retreating to fully online learning in either the week before or after spring break, hoping the pause will slow the spread of the virus,” Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit news site, reported on April 5. 


Milwaukee is one of the last school districts in the state to reopen beginning on April 14. “We are watching the B.1.1.7 very closely,” says Milwaukee School Board President Larry Miller. Any decision as to whether to open or close schools again will be made with the full participation of the board and superintendent. “We will decide on what is appropriate for the health and safety of our kids.”

At this point, no Wisconsin school system has closed its doors again because of a possible surge. However, any outbreak in any school system could place great pressure on schools to close. Just when schools were told they could decrease social distancing to 3 feet, some medical experts are worried that going back to 6 feet may not be enough. It is the lunchroom we have to worry about.

A major contributing factor to B.1.1.7 spread may be high school team sports. The Minnesota’s Star Tribune reports, “Since late January, at least 68 coronavirus cases have been connected to participants in school-sponsored and club sports, the Minnesota Department of Health announced Friday. Whole genome sequencing has confirmed that 24 of the cases were caused by the variant known as B.1.1.7, with cases found in athletes, coaches, students and household contacts. Health officials have found links between those cases and at least 44 others.”

Todd Clark is director of communications for the Wisconsin Independent Athletic Association (WIAA) that governs high school sports in Wisconsin. Clark says high schools got through the fall and winter sport season with minor virus spread. This included indoor contact sports such as basketball and wrestling.

Traditional spring sports such as cross-country, softball and baseball are played outdoors with much less physical contact. Clark states that all coaches and students are required to wear masks when not actively engaged in physical activity. Catchers and umpires must wear masks in softball and baseball due to the physical proximity with other individuals. Clark says that the WIAA is constantly updating regulations to respond to the COVID this school year.

As communities see a drop in infections and hospitalizations, the public may not be aware that a new COVID surge is developing. Nearly all Wisconsin schools will be open for in-person instruction by the end of the month. Some districts may go even further. The Waterford school district is surveying parents, asking whether the district should drop the mask wearing mandate in its buildings. This reconsideration comes after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Evers statewide mask mandate.

As the school year comes to a close, school districts are considering summer school offerings to help students catch up from any learning loss that may have taken place over the school year. Districts might extend the current school year, or at least take a short break before beginning a summer school session. But if B.1.1.7 continues to increase, officials may wait until August to make changes in hopes of breaking the COVID cycle and giving students a head start in the coming school year. It’s not yet clear whether schools can avoid more shutdowns.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.