ITHACA, N.Y.—Over the next week, more students will be in Ithaca City School District classrooms than have been since classrooms were officially closed on March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control tweaked its classroom density guidelines, allowing for students to sit three feet apart instead of six feet and, as a result, allowing schools to bring more students into classrooms without requiring barriers to be installed to prevent infection.
One of the potential threats that had emerged to re-opening schools was the perception, of murky accuracy, that the recent variants of the coronavirus that have been identified pose a much higher risk of transmission and spread among young people than the original COVID-19 virus had last spring. While it’s virtually impossible to tell whether or not the variants were present in Tompkins County and simply avoided detection, the first reported case was on Jan. 15, with several cases of the UK variant, Southern California variant and New York City variant announced publicly since then.
That, then, establishes that at least some of the variants have made their way to Tompkins County, but Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said the fears over subsequent youth outbreaks have not come to fruition—at least, not so far. In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, he detailed what Deputy Administrator Amie Hendrix had said last week, which is that youth transmission has not been shown to be a more significant factor than at any other stage of the pandemic in Tompkins County, despite the known presence of the variants locally.
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“We have not seen much transmission at all in schools, whether it’s student to student or adult to student,” Kruppa said. “We have certainly had student-aged children that have been positive for COVID, but we have not seen it due to exposures in the school system.”
That phenomenon isn’t entirely explained yet, Kruppa said, but credited the various school districts around Tompkins County for the precautions taken in buildings to prevent spread or contamination.
“We’re in this race to get as many folks vaccinated, so that even if we do have the variants, we’re able to stop them quickly,” Kruppa said. “As for children, I do think it’s time for us to be getting back to school as much as possible. There is still state guidance that the districts are working under, I know they’re working hard to make as much in-person school available as possible while keeping as safe an environment as possible.”
Obviously, Kruppa said, if new evidence came about that showed that youth transmission is higher now than previously, particularly if schools begin encountering outbreaks among students and staff, the health department would step in and likely either close classrooms or restore the prior density rules.
From when schools re-opened for in-person learning in September until now, Ithaca City School District has encountered 91 positive COVID-19 cases. Of those, 55 have been among students and 36 among faculty or staff members. If some sort of outbreak was to happen, Kruppa said, the health department would work with the school district in question to contain any spread and determine the best course of action, including reducing density again or closing classrooms.
There is no “line in the sand” for those decisions to take place though, and he noted that has not been an issue over the last several months since school began again in the fall.
“What we’ve found throughout is that the districts are making the decisions to go remote because of the impacts of isolation and quarantine on their staff and potentially their students if there are cases, and that has generally happened way before any threshold that the health department would consider,” Kruppa said.
Another potential assisting factor: vaccinations coming to younger people. Right now, only Pfizer’s vaccine has been approved for use by people aged 16-18, but that could change in the near future as companies continue their studies on the impacts of the vaccines on younger children.
“We’re waiting for the review process to be completed, and hopefully that will make available that vaccine for kids under 16 but over 12,” Kruppa said.