NAMPA, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
Students in the Nampa School District returned to the classroom on Thursday, and already, COVID-19 seems hot on their heels.
As of Friday morning, there were 24 staff and 56 students out, said Kathleen Tuck, community relations director for the school district, and she expected numbers to climb throughout the day Friday. Though the reason for the absence is not always reported, trends in the broader community point to COVID-19, Tuck said.
Health care providers in the Treasure Valley this week shared they are seeing great demand for COVID-19 testing as the region follows the rest of the country into a new wave of the pandemic driven by the omicron variant. Those tests are showing high positivity rates, including among youth, though some districts in the Treasure Valley have not yet returned to school.
But most children in Idaho are not vaccinated, and most local school districts do not currently require mask wearing, both of which could stem the virus's spread, physicians say.
“If this positive rate continues to be high, and I believe it will, and as kids go back to school, what is going to happen is that the teachers are going to get infected whether they are vaccinated or not,” said Dr. David Peterman, pediatrician and CEO of Primary Health Medical Group. “And the outcome of that at some point, whether it’s teachers, or custodians, or drivers ... your kids won’t be able to go to school.”
The omicron variant is one of the most contagious viruses known to man, and is more contagious than the delta variant, whose spread led to the implementation of crisis standards of care statewide in September. Now, as the spread of omicron is being attributed to a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and health care worker staffing shortages, health care providers are anticipating having to re-enter crisis standards of care soon due to resources spreading thin, as previously reported by the Idaho Press.
The percentage of children vaccinated in Idaho is very low, Peterman said. Just 11% of children aged 5-11 are fully vaccinated in Idaho, according to the Idaho Division of Public Health’s vaccination dashboard. That figure is 35% for 12-15-year-olds, 41% for 16-17-year-olds, and 48% for 18-24-year-olds, according to the website.
Though children are generally not as susceptible to COVID-19, they are more likely to be asymptomatic, the sheer number of kids being exposed to this variant means that there will be higher volumes of children who get very ill, Peterman said.
“We have examples of that all over the country where pediatric units are filled,” Peterman said.
Nationally, the number of pediatric inpatients in many facilities has been doubling, or quadrupling, said Dr. Kenny Bramwell, system medical director for St. Luke’s Children's, in a media briefing on Thursday.
“You know, historically, Idaho has been between two and five weeks behind other parts of the country,” Bramwell said. “So I expect it will happen (here) soon.”
When a child is brought into a primary health clinic for COVID testing, clinic officials collect the family's zip code and match it to the student’s corresponding school district. Even ahead of students coming back from winter break, positivity rates —the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — were climbing.
As of Thursday night, the positivity rate for the previous six days for youth ages 13-18 was 30%, and it was 22% for youth ages 5-11, Peterman said. A population whose positivity rate is less than 5% is considered to have the outbreak under control. In adults, the positivity rate is between 30 to 33%, he said.
Coupled with low vaccination rates among school-aged children, there is great potential for high numbers of cases and disruption of school operations, Peterman said.
Though vaccination would be protective, masking in schools could also greatly help reduce the spread of omicron among children and adults, Peterman said.
“From the perspective of pediatricians, the way to keep children in schools is for everyone to wear masks,” Peterman said.
Local school districts have varying plans for addressing the omicron outbreak. In Nampa, the district’s board, including three new school board members who ran on platforms of individual choice, have no plans to convene to reassess protocols, such as requiring masks, Tuck said.
The West Ada School District, whose students returned from the holiday break on Monday, was reporting a total of 95 cases of COVID-19 Friday morning: 11 staff and 84 students, according to the district’s online dashboard. Masks are not required in the district. As of Friday, the board had no plans to discuss pandemic protocols at its upcoming Monday board meeting, said Char Jackson, Chief Communication Officer for the district, via email.
The Caldwell School District reviews its pandemic protocols at every board meeting, and will do so at its Monday board meeting, said Jessica Watts, director of public information for the district. Masks are currently recommended, but not required, according to the district’s website.
The Kuna School District rolled out a rapid testing program for its students and staff in December, Alison Westfall, communication director for the district, said via email. When the district returned to school earlier this week, officials began considering revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and how it might affect the school’s protocols, Westfall said. If it’s determined that changes are needed, they would need to be approved by the district’s board at its meeting on Tuesday. Masks are not currently required in the district, Westfall said.
The Kuna School District reviews case numbers in the district and the city of Kuna every two weeks, Westfall said. The next review date will be Friday. As of Jan. 6, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 228 absences, including 53 COVID-related absences and 15 positive cases.
The Boise School District will resume classes on Monday. The Boise School District has required masks since prior to the start of school in the fall. The agenda for the district's scheduled board meeting on Monday includes a "Pandemic/Endemic Planning Update."
The Vallivue School District will also resume classes on Monday. The district has held a masks optional policy since the beginning of the school year, depending on spread in the school district. The agenda for the district's board meeting on Tuesday includes a review of the school's "Ready to Re-engage" plan, or pandemic protocols plan.
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