Scott County School District 1 in Austin, Indiana reopened for the fall semester with optional face masks, less distancing in classrooms and no remote option.

District leaders quickly realized they had relaxed the Covid safety rules too soon.

Within the month of August, the district would record 65 Covid-19 cases among students — more than the number of cases recorded in the entire 2020-21 school year, according to Deana Broadus, the district’s lead nurse.

The cases weren’t confined to just one or two classrooms, Broadus said. Some outbreaks seemed connected to school buses. She suspected that many cases may have originated from social contact outside of school, or were the lingering vestiges of summer break infections.

One week into the semester, the district shut down in-person learning for two weeks in order to get the situation under control. When students returned to classrooms on August 23, they faced Covid safety protocols similar to those of the previous spring: distances between desks were back to six feet and masks were required whenever a student was not actively sitting at their desk. School staff “reinforced the basics of hand hygiene, staying home if you’re sick, testing, covering if you’re coughing, being careful when you’re eating,” Broadus said.

There was a “little bit of pushback,” she said, but the community was supportive overall: In-person school with some Covid safety measures was preferable to more weeks of remote learning.

Scott County School District 1 was one of the lucky ones last school year. Most children attended school in person for most of 2020-21, but the rate of Covid cases among children remained well below the national rate.

Not this year.

The delta variant changed the equation for schools and districts that stayed mostly Covid-free in the first 18 months of the pandemic. The virus has reached rural and suburban areas that were relatively insulated in the earlier days, as relaxed mask policies and exhaustion with pandemic restrictions helped fuel the spread, and highly contagious Covid variants have overcome the defenses of even the most vigilant schools.

Read the full article about the impact of COVID variants on schools by Betsy Ladyzhets at The Hechinger Report.