INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 has been hitting schools much harder than a year ago and the cracks have started to show as local districts have had to cancel in-person classes due to large outages of students and staff.
In the four-county area of DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Stebuen schools have seen more than double the cases so far this school year than they did the entirety of the 2020-21 school year as Indiana is currently in its worst surge ever.
Statewide, Indiana is seeing the most cases hitting teachers and staff members than any other time this year, and the shortage of available adults who are out either sick with COVID-19 or quarantining because of it has led to some districts having to revert temporarily to virtual learning.
So far this year, school districts in the four-county area have recorded at least 1,340 student cases of COVID-19 as of Jan. 7, according to the Indiana State Department of Health schools dashboard.
That’s a 105.5% increase from the entirety of a 2020-21 school season in the area, when schools had at least 652 cases.
The numbers are “at least” because the state suppresses actual numbers when there are fewer than five cases reported from any district.
The number of schools reporting fewer than five cases among students is low — only three buildings out of the 52 schools in the local area have fewer than five cases.
The variation is much wider when it comes to teacher and staff cases.
Locally, four-county schools have reported at least 46 teacher cases and at least 113 staff cases. Twenty-six schools have reported fewer than five cases for teachers, meaning the number could up to 78 higher, while 31 buildings are reporting fewer than five cases, meaning that total could be up to 93 individuals larger.
Teacher numbers are currently about 60% lower than the last-year total of at least 116 cases, while staff cases are also about 41% lower from at least 191 a year ago.
Since the school year is just slightly over 50% complete, those figures for adults are close to their 2020-21 totals.
Although the overall totals are tracking about the same as last year, schools have been getting hit with more of these cases recently.
Last week, Lakeland schools went virtual starting Jan. 12 for a week because the district had too many teachers out and not enough substitutes to replace them.
Central Noble Junior/Senior High had a similar situation, going virtual Jan. 14 for one day but then adding a second day out Jan. 17.
And, on Jan. 14, East Noble School Corp. announced that due to widespread absenteeism because of COVID-19 that it was closing all buildings and doing virtual e-learning days on Jan. 17 and 18. That was actually the second shut-down for East Noble after it had to shutter the high school in August for three days due to a rapid-spreading outbreak among students just after the start of the new school year.
Several Allen County schools have done the same, although no other school districts in the four-county area have had to shut down temporarily yet.
While student cases are more than double what they were last year, adult cases are not at this point.
One potential reason for that disparity could be vaccination rate — children younger than 12 weren’t eligible for vaccines until November and uptake among youth ages groups remains very low.
Statewide, vaccination rates are 45% and higher for age groups above 20 years old — 65% and higher for those age 50 and above and 81% and higher for those over 65 years old — but youth rates remain much lower.
The vaccination rate is about 46% for teens 16-19 — likely pulled up to some percentage by college students age 18 and 19 who are required to have shots to attend — while the overall rate is 39% for children age 12-15 and just 13.6% for those between 5-11.
Vaccination rates in the four-county are lag the statewide average widely, too, so while Indiana’s overall vaccine rate is 57% for Hoosiers 5 and older, it’s only about 39% in the four-county area, meaning those age-group percentages are likely sharply lower in our area.
However, teachers were one group who were vocal about wanting to get the vaccine as soon as possible when distribution started to the general public in Indiana in early 2021. Although the state didn’t prioritize educators, instead following a prioritization schedule based on age which has proven to be the primary risk factor for severe impacts from the virus, teachers may have been on occupation that came to the vaccine in greater numbers simply because of the exposure they have working closely with large groups every day in the classroom.
Children are at low risk of serious complications from COVID, with deaths being extremely rare and hospitalizations uncommon, although Indiana has seen rising pediatric hospitalizations since July when the highly infectious delta variant arrived in the state.
Teachers and staff member risk levels are naturally higher because of their age. While young educators in their 20s and 30s are also at relatively low risk, workers older than 50 face much higher risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.
Although highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths, vaccines have proven less effective at stopping transmission of the virus, primarily because the delta variant and the new omicron variant of COVID-19 both replicate so quickly that even vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus, even if they themselves do not grow ill.
Statistics show that vaccinated individuals are less likely to become infected and even if they do, they’re more likely to have a mild case.