As Nashville prepares for a third school year that will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has shown it can adapt as well as if not better than the society it’s attacking. The vaccines, developed with miraculous speed, have been remarkably effective against the virus. Yet so many Tennesseans — and Americans in general — have been so resistant to getting the shot that the virus is raging again, in the form of the Delta variant. 

In July, COVID-related hospitalizations increased nearly five-fold, and state health officials say that upward of 97 percent of those cases — and 98 percent of deaths — are among unvaccinated patients. That’s a category that still includes most Tennesseans. As of Aug. 1, just 39.3 percent of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated; 44.6 percent have received at least one dose. 

Newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reinforces the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. The infection rate for unvaccinated people is eight times higher than for vaccinated people, and the hospitalization rate for the unvaccinated is 25 times higher. Breakthrough infections for vaccinated people are rare, but the agency has found that vaccinated people can spread the virus if they become infected. And the Delta variant appears to be more contagious, possibly even as contagious as chickenpox. As a result, the CDC has released new guidelines recommending that even vaccinated people should resume wearing masks indoors if they live in high-transmission areas or in a home with particularly vulnerable people. 

Now comes the new school year. On Aug. 10, Metro Nashville Public School students will return for what the district hopes will be the first full year of in-person classes since the pandemic hit. Last week’s Scene cover story focused on how Napier Elementary — and the school’s principal, Dr. Watechia Lawless — is approaching this year’s unique challenges. One of those challenges, of course, is COVID-19. 

As of this writing, MNPS is not requiring masks in schools — only “highly encouraging” them for staff and students. Students older than 12 are eligible for the vaccine, but that leaves large numbers of elementary school and middle school students unprotected. 

Infectious disease specialist and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor Dr. William Schaffner spoke to the Scene recently about how and why vaccines are the way out of the pandemic. But he also had thoughts about the coming school year. Schaffner strongly supports bringing students back to school in person and says schools can be a “low-risk environment.” Although children have been hospitalized and died from COVID-19, those cases are rare. Young children appear to be far less vulnerable to serious cases of illness if infected. Still, Schaffner says, they have some risk, which can be significantly lessened in a few ways. He says all unvaccinated students should wear masks, as does the CDC.  

“That’s clear, and no, the wearing of the mask is not tedious,” Schaffner says. “Children can be used to it. It’s happened all over the country. It does not make them sick. It doesn’t make your surgeon sick — if the surgeon has to wear the mask for eight hours in an operation, it’s not gonna make your child sick. Put that away, that’s all malarkey.”

There are other steps schools can take to lower the risk of spreading the virus, he says. Among them: splitting classes into smaller pods of students and eating lunch in classrooms to avoid large gatherings in the cafeteria. But the most direct way to combat infection and transmission of the virus is, again, getting the shot. 

“I think every adult that has anything directly to do with schools should be vaccinated, and that should be required,” Schaffner says. “Whether you’re a public school, or private school, every teacher, every school bus driver, every custodian, everybody who works in the cafeteria, every coach, every secretary, every crossing guard. Everybody who has anything to do with schools, obviously — hello? — should be vaccinated. And if they haven’t been yet, shame on them.” 

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