Virus Outbreak

Governor John Carney repeatedly emphasized it's his goal to have students back in the classroom full-time this fall after a year of learning loss suffered by students as schools closed their doors to in-person learning off and on over the last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"The goal's a simple one--all in-person--whether it's realistic or not, we'll see," said the governor in a Tuesday night virtual town hall.

He called it his highest priority.

"Getting children back in school and meeting the needs of children, the learning that they've lost over the last year is one of my highest priorities; it has to be for all of us," he said. "Getting them in front of teachers in classrooms safely has to be our number one objective."

The governor said 80,000 students are getting some form of in-person/hybrid learning. Delaware's total school enrollment is 138,414, according to the Delaware Department of Education.

But right now, one impediment to kids getting fully back into the classroom rests with CDC and DPH guidance which recommends 3 ft. of space between students in classrooms and on school buses.

"We couldn't accommodate with the 3 ft. distancing in classrooms 100% of people in-person is my understanding in most school buildings and most school districts," said the governor. 

Some public schools have been able to open up limited grade levels or schools to five-day-a-week in-person instruction, but often have been helped by higher percentages of families opting to stay remote. The Colonial School District is 40% remote instruction, opening up extra space for those who do wish to be in person.

The CDC and DPH guidance has also limited Delaware school buses to a maximum of 23 students, down from a traditional maximum of around 72. That's led multiple districts have also added requests for families to find ways to drive their students to school as a way to open more opportunities for in-person school days.

The governor said they'd continue to follow the science and the data as it pertains to reopening schools fully.

Working in the state's and school communities' favor--the CDC said studies have shown that transmission of the virus in school settings remains low. 

"We're really not seeking a peak in that age group, which is great, but again, since they don't have the vaccine, they are at certain risk, so we really rely on families to protect them and make sure that they're wearing masks, if they're able to wear masks, as well as social distancing and hand hygiene," said state medical director Dr. Rick Hong.

Additionally, any educator who wants the COVID-19 vaccine has already had an opportunity to get it, meaning they'll be fully vaccinated by September; however, virus transmission is still possible even in those who are fully vaccinated. In Delaware, the Division of Public Health said it's aware of 24 positive COVID-19 tests in fully vaccinated people. It's unclear whether the positive tests involved symptomatic or asymptomatic persons.

"The vaccine is not 100%. You could still get infected and you could be a carrier, or you can pass it on to others, and that's why we still have recommendations to continue social distancing, mask-wearing, as well as hand hygiene. It's very important even after you're fully vaccinated. We don't want that false sense of security to lead to increased cases. It's very important that you still protect yourself until we reach that certain level of vaccination numbers, where it's no longer widespread in the communities," said Hong.

Public health officials said they're working to vaccinate high schoolers who are of age too. Those 18 and up can get the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, while 16 and 17-year-olds are also eligible for Pfizer's vaccine.

"We are looking at options and opportunities to get vaccine out to high schools," said Dr. Hong. "We are looking at ways we can get the vaccine out before the school year so they can come in fully vaccinated for the school year."

Hong said, perhaps, in a few months, the FDA emergency use authorization for vaccines could be expanded to younger adolescents. Recent clinical trial results of Pfizer/BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine showed its efficacy is 100% and it is well tolerated in youths ages 12 to 15, the companies said 

"There are studies going on right now, we want to make sure most importantly that when it's ready that it's safe as well as effective," said Hong.

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WDEL's Sean Greene contributed to this report.