By Samantha West, Chalkbeat Tennessee. This article was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters
Eighteen months after the pandemic first disrupted schools across the U.S, Shelby County marks a grim pandemic milestone: 20,000 school-age children have tested positive for COVID since the pandemic began in March 2020.
That means about one in 9 Shelby County children, ages 5 to 18, has been infected with COVID, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health. Since the school year began Aug. 9, the number of children diagnosed with COVID has jumped from 13,741 to 20,611 as of Monday afternoon, an increase of almost 50 percentage points. Increased testing has contributed to the rising number of COVID diagnoses in the county.
Shelby County Schools partnered with Poplar Healthcare to provide free and voluntary COVID PCR tests, sometimes called nasal swab tests, to students and educators.
“Since the start of the program on Aug. 9, we have administered over 17,700 COVID PCR tests for Shelby County Schools students and staff,” said Rachel Carpenter, spokesperson for Poplar Healthcare. “Participation increases each week as more parents and guardians opt in for their children to be tested.”
In the first four weeks of school, Shelby County Schools reported a total of 1,650 students and 246 staff members had tested positive for COVID.
Principals and school leaders are also tracking COVID cases on their campuses. As of Thursday, 14 students have tested positive for COVID at Crosstown High School this school year, said Chris Terrill, the charter school’s executive director. The school serves 490 students.
Terrill credits the school’s relative success to several efforts, including pushing vaccines as soon as they became available. As of Thursday, Terrill said 98% of school staff and 78% of students are vaccinated. Additionally, masks are mandatory at all times — except during lunch, when students are asked to scan a QR code once they sit at a table and log who they’re sitting with in order to ease contact tracing. And, there is ongoing, voluntary testing. In the last cycle of testing, Terrill said, 480 children participated and zero were positive.
With most of the school population and staff vaccinated, Terrill knows they’ll likely be OK, even if they contract the virus since vaccinated people have less severe symptoms. But if 12 or 15 teachers test positive, and all their close contacts must quarantine, how will he staff the school?
“No school is really staffed for something like that,” Terrill said. “It’s just kind of an exhausting, mind-boggling process that we’re in.”
Terrill said that although he is proud of how Crosstown has handled the school year so far, he is worried. And, he knows he’s not alone.
“It’s heavy,” he said. “While we’re doing everything we can here to limit the spread, it still weighs heavily on our staff; it weighs heavily on our kids and our parents.”
The 20,000-case mark comes as the state continues to make national headlines for its surging COVID cases, accelerated by the more contagious delta variant, which began to widely circulate just as many Memphis students’ returned to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year.
Shelby County Schools offered only virtual courses until March, and after school buildings reopened, about two-thirds of students chose to continue to learn online.
But the road back to the building has been bumpy. Over a hectic first month of school, district officials have grappled with the continuing battle over whether parents can opt their children out of school mask mandates.
For Dr. Nick Hysmith, medical director of infection prevention at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where most beds are full, the sobering 20,000-case milestone doesn’t come as a surprise.
When the pandemic was just starting, Hysmith recalled how few children contracted the virus, and if they did, their symptoms were likely mild. In many cases, they were asymptomatic.
Recent weeks have been a different story. Hysmith has seen an increasing number of children with severe respiratory illnesses due to the virus, with some needing supplemental oxygen to breathe and others intubated or on ventilators in the intensive care units.
“I’m not terribly surprised that this is where we are,” he said, blaming the surge on the more-contagious delta variant, low vaccination rates across the region, and the start of school.
Hysmith is hopeful, though. He believes many Memphians have taken the recent surge seriously, and thinks the Mid-South may be approaching a plateau — as long as people don’t drop their guards.
“If we can just hold out and continue doing what we’ve been doing in the coming weeks, that’ll be the best thing,” Hysmith said. “If we can just keep our kids masked and at home if they’re sick for the next several weeks, we will get through this delta wave.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.