This story originally appeared in El-Perico. It has been updated to reflect the changing school district policies on masking.

A significant rise in coronavirus cases due to the highly infectious delta variant has raised concerns for the safety of Omaha children returning to in-person school in the coming weeks.

Here’s what you need to know about the current spread of the coronavirus in Omaha, and what it means for sending children back to school.

Omaha is currently considered a “high transmission area,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A map of the transmission risk by county in the United States. Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its mask guidance, recommending that unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas with a high level of community transmission. That includes Douglas County, which is currently one of many areas of high transmission across the country, according to the CDC’s COVID data tracker.

This reversal of previous guidance comes due to new evidence and research on the delta variant circulating throughout the country, including in Omaha.

In Douglas County, recorded cases are “almost universally the delta variant,” according to the County.

The delta variant makes up about 80% of coronaviruses transmitting throughout the country from July 18 to July 31, and cases are largely among people who are unvaccinated. Omaha and its surrounding areas are no exception.

In recent weeks, cases recorded by the Douglas County Health Department (DCHD) are “almost universally the delta variant,” according to DCHD Resource Specialist Phil Rooney.

Though the delta variant is fairly new, it does seem to spread more easily than previous variants of the coronavirus, Rooney said.

Unvaccinated young people are at a particularly high risk of infection.

Throughout the pandemic, individuals under the age of 19 have made up approximately 14.7% of all coronavirus cases in Douglas County. In a Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse said that coronavirus cases for that age group have tripled in recent weeks, comprising about 26% of the county’s current cases.

The spike in cases concerns health experts locally and nationally as the start of an in-person school year is on the horizon.

“This has become a real epidemic of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Sara Hurtado Bares, an infectious diseases provider at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC).

While vaccinations remain effective against the virus, about 43% of the entire Douglas County population is still unvaccinated, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard. That number includes children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

Since schools are settings in which large groups of people congregate indoors, Dr. Hurtado Bares said, they become at-risk places for higher rates of person-to-person viral spread. Like many other public health and medical experts, she is particularly concerned about elementary and middle schools, where a large portion of the student body is currently ineligible for vaccination.

“Although children are not as likely to get as sick and require hospitalization as adults, there are some children who are more susceptible because of immunocompromising conditions,” she said. “There are [also] children who live with adults who are susceptible, and there are children who just because of bad luck, get sicker.”

Children ages 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine: a two-dose vaccination series, with the second dose given three weeks after the first. Dr. Hurtado Bares said getting the vaccine as soon as possible will help increase an individual’s immunity and protection as they return to school.

Some school districts have recently updated their policies on masks.  

Photo from Unsplash.

School district officials and public health experts alike agree that in-person learning is most beneficial to students.

Though children younger than 12 are currently ineligible for vaccination, research continues to show that masks are an effective tool in the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including the delta variant.

The DCHD recommends that schools in the county follow guidance from the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics — that all in schools wear masks this fall.

Bellevue Public Schools (BPS) is not currently requiring students to wear face coverings, although the district strongly recommends all students, staff and visitors who are unvaccinated wear them. According to the BPS plan, “face coverings may become required in any school or class room that experiences an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.”

Omaha Public Schools (OPS) will now require masks for all students and staff in schools throughout the district. The district’s back-to-school safety plan lists other precautions that will be taken.

Millard Public Schools has made mask wearing and face coverings optional and recommended for all staff, students and visitors if not fully vaccinated, according to the district’s safety plan for the return to school.

“The requirement for mask and face coverings may change if there is an identified high risk of spread within the community, school building, program, or classroom,” the plan says.

Papillion La Vista Community Schools currently does not mandate mask wearing in their guidance for back to school, which can be found here.Westside Community Schools will be requiring masks for students and staff in its elementary schools, according to the district’s “Safe Return To School Plan.”

What can parents do?

Dr. Hurtado Bares, a parent herself, has recommendations for other parents who are navigating how to send their children back to school as safely as possible.

“Knowing that we’re going into another surge here, and that we’re seeing rates exponentially on the rise right now, I think it’s the time to really take the most precautions,” said Dr. Hurtado Bares.

First, if anyone in the household can get vaccinated, she said now is the time to do it.

“We have over a year’s worth of data on the vaccine, now millions and millions of people who have received them, and with the virus surging again,” Dr. Hurtado Bares said, “the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risk of side effects.”.

If you want to know more about the vaccine, Dr. Hurtado Bares recommends you have a conversation with your healthcare provider or check out the CDC’s list of frequently asked questions.

You can find out where to get vaccinated in Douglas County here. OPS has continued to schedule vaccination clinics for eligible students and their families ahead of the school year, and details can be found here.

Families can also minimize the risk of COVID-19 for their children by normalizing the use of masks, Dr. Hurtado Bares said. Before school begins, parents can get their children masks that fit them well, and that they feel comfortable wearing.

“We were really lucky this summer to be able to lighten some restrictions and have some time without the masks,” she said. “Now it’s time to go back into the school year, [and] we need to get our kids prepared to wear masks.”

In putting in the hard work to mask up and take precautions now, Dr. Hurtado Bares thinks we’ll be in a better place in the coming year.

“We should be doing everything we can to work together and protect our most vulnerable,” she said.

Where can I get vaccinated?

You can find out where to get vaccinated in Douglas County here

The Douglas County Health Department wants to understand community sentiment around the COVID-19 vaccination, and invites all to participate in their COVID-19 vaccine survey. The purpose is to collect the public’s opinions and interest in receiving COVID-19 vaccines, and personal identifying information will not be shared without your consent, according to the survey.

Where can I get tested for COVID-19?

A list of free COVID-19 testing sites and other testing options is available on the DCHD website. Find a location near you on the department’s interactive map.

Got questions about this story? Email the reporter at bridget@el-perico.com.


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Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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