Arkansas students’ scores on the 2021 ACT Aspire exams were down this year in all grades and subjects, a troubling but not surprising sign of the learning loss that resulted from the closure of all Arkansas public schools to on-site instruction in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting students back into the classroom is a worthy goal, but with the highly contagious Delta variant and Arkansas’ low vaccination rate driving a new COVID-19 surge in Arkansas, parents of school- and college-bound children need to take action now to ensure their kids are protected.
First and foremost, every child age 12 or older who has not been vaccinated against COVID-19 ― and any unvaccinated adult living in the same household ― should be vaccinated immediately. Optimal protection does not occur until five or six weeks after initiation of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and they require two shots which should be spaced three to four weeks apart. For the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, maximum protection occurs about four weeks after vaccination. If parents drag their feet in getting their children vaccinated, students will be unnecessarily vulnerable to the virus when school starts.
Currently, there is no COVID-19 vaccine approved for children younger than 12. This makes it important for families to protect children in that age group as much as possible by making sure all eligible members of the household have the protection provided by the vaccines.
Parents can also protect their children by modeling defensive measures: social distancing, frequent hand-washing and mask-wearing in public. Some may have relaxed these measures after being vaccinated, but the current resurgence of the virus in Arkansas makes it advisable to reintroduce and reinforce them, even for fully vaccinated people. The protection provided by the vaccines, while extremely high, is not 100%, and anecdotal reports suggest the Delta variant may be more likely than other strains of the virus to infect vaccinated people.
Unfortunately, public schools and colleges are handcuffed by a new state law that prohibits state and local government entities from requiring masks. But there is nothing to stop parents from instructing their children in this scientifically proven method of reducing transmission of the virus. Parents can also engage with their children’s schools to learn how they can support the schools’ plans for encouraging safe behaviors.
We have the means to be successful against COVID-19. Vaccines are available and free to everyone age 12 and older. More than 2.2 million vaccine doses have been given in Arkansas, and 335 million in the U.S. The vaccines have been 94% effective at preventing hospitalization due to COVID-19. Nearly all deaths from COVID-19 in the past several months have been among unprotected individuals. Serious side effects from the vaccines are extremely rare, and the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks.
Only 35% of Arkansans are fully vaccinated ― one of the worst rates in the nation ― and only 5% of Arkansans under age 18 are fully vaccinated. It is no coincidence that Arkansas also has one of the highest per-capita rates of new COVID-19 cases. We are still learning about the Delta variant, but it appears to be infecting younger age groups than the previously dominant strains. On July 9, 74% of new known cases in Arkansas were among people age 44 and younger, and 34% were among children age 17 and younger. Although most infected children have milder symptoms than adults, some develop very serious illness, and the long-term effects of even mild infection in children remain unknown.
We have only a few weeks before school starts. If we do not increase our vaccination rate among adolescents, teens, college students and adults, we can expect to see disruptions to educational and extracurricular school activities, increasing hospitalizations of young people, and avoidable deaths of more Arkansans. To optimally protect our children, we must act now.
Editor’s note: This guest commentary is authored by Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., the president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. Thompson was Arkansas’ surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe. The opinions expressed are those of the author.