MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is seeing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in school-age children, an increase officials say is likely fueled by the highly contagious delta variant and is causing some schools to temporarily switch to remote learning.
The Alabama Department of Public Health said Thursday that 5,571 children ages 5 to 17 were reported to have contracted COVID-19 last week. That compares to 702 cases in school-aged children during the same week last year, when more than half of students were studying remotely and the delta variant was not circulating.
State Health Officer Scott Harris pointed to the more contagious delta variant as “the most likely explanation.”
“The numbers are staggering,” Harris said of the increase. “We want to remind people that everyone needs to be vaccinated who is eligible, that is everyone 12 and up. We strongly recommend universal masking in schools.”
The numbers represent a seven-fold increase in cases over that timeframe last year, although hospitalizations and deaths in children remain relatively rare, according to state numbers.
Of the nearly 2,900 patients in state hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday, fewer than 50 were children, according to the Alabama Hospital Association. State health officials have said about 6% of infected children develop the lingering symptoms known as “long COVID.”
Harris said a state dashboard that lists school cases should resume reporting Friday.
Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey said the number of schools implementing temporary remote learning is growing “every day and it is growing exponentially.”
“The delta variant is so much more contagious. It certainly has been more contagious among youth. We are seeing that,” Mackey said.
“We never anticipated there would be this kind of spike not in schools but a community-wide spike, that would hit the week we began to open school. It was the perfect storm,” Mackey said.
Lee, Cullman and Lawrence counties are among those that this week announced a temporary return to remote learning for some individual schools.
Cullman County Superintendent Shane Barnette said five schools in that system will switch to remote learning for the next two weeks. The decision came after one-third of students there were absent either because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine because of being in close contact with someone who did.
“The safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff is the number one priority in our school district,” Barnette said.
Shelby County Schools on Thursday announced the system would begin requiring masks to be worn in schools. State officials have left decisions on masks to local systems.
Superintendent Lewis Brooks wrote to parents that the move, “gives us the best chance to stay in school without a complete shutdown."
Mackey urged parents to be patient.
“These are challenging times for teachers and principals. We know that it is frustrating for them and for parents, but parents just need to be patient. We’ll get through this difficult spike,” Mackey said. He also urged people to talk to their medical provider about getting vaccinated to slow the spread and “not have another spike.”