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Understanding delta and young children

‘We can’t help but be worried.’

Early Bird readers, hello again. Newcomers, welcome! If you were forwarded this email, you can sign up here to receive it every two weeks, and join our conversation on issues facing North Carolina’s young children and those who support them. If you’re already a subscriber, please help us reach more people by sharing this with your friends and co-workers interested in early childhood education.

Tonya Gillikin and her daughter, Ellie-Blu Miller, play at the Carteret Partnership for Children. Liz Bell/EducationNC

In October 2020, I talked with several medical professionals when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that elementary schools could bring students back for full in-person learning. The reasoning? “Higher benefit, lower risk,” said Mandy Cohen, state secretary of health and human services.

Though the experts did not yet have clear answers as to why, children represented fewer COVID-19 cases than other groups and were experiencing less severe symptoms. Schools and child care facilities were not seeing the kind of transmission some predicted. A month later, I wrote another story on a Yale University study that found providing in-person child care did not increase the risk of infection for educators.

Nearly a year later, we’re in a different place. I spoke with Dr. Ibukun C. Kalu, medical director of pediatric infection prevention at Duke University Medical Center, to make sense of this moment and ask what parents should do to make the best decisions for their young children.

As child care inches closer to pre-pandemic enrollment and another school year starts, the delta variant is complicating things. Pediatric cases are up, representing a larger share than ever before. And vaccine approval for children younger than 12 years old is likely to take the rest of the year, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in an interview with NPR.

Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with Kalu:

  • With a more contagious variant such as delta, higher transmission will trickle down to kids who do not yet have vaccination as an option. That makes it even more critical for older children and adults to wear masks and get vaccinated if they’re eligible.
  • Check the latest guidance on child care settings and K-12 schools to ensure your child’s school or center is taking appropriate safety measures. The most important ones, according to Kalu: “vaccinations, masking, cohorting — particularly for the younger ones — and then environmental cleaning.”
  • Kalu said the worrying trends around pediatric hospitalizations have been more severe in Southern regions with lower vaccination rates. “Vaccination rates need to go up.”
  • Though children might be less effective at spreading the virus, Kalu said it’s clear: “Kids can get infected, can spread to each other, spread to adults, and unfortunately they can get really sick from this.”
  • Other respiratory illnesses in young children are surging in tandem with the delta surge. Reach out to your doctor, get kids tested, mask up if you’re older than 2, and get vaccinated if you’re older than 12.

Have questions about navigating the pandemic as a parent or educator? Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Early Bird reads: What we’re writing

Q&A | What does this new pandemic moment mean for young children?

“Reach out to your provider. Get kids tested if they have symptoms you’re worried about. For adults or older kids that are eligible for vaccinations, ensure they get vaccinated. And, at least for now, ensure that those that can, should wear masks in crowded spaces and outside the home.”

Leandro judge says he is ‘very close’ to giving up on Republican lawmakers

The Supreme Court of North Carolina, in its landmark Leandro v. State decision over two decades ago, affirmed the fundamental right of every child to have access to a sound basic education. The courts also ruled that North Carolina was not meeting this constitutional requirement.

Since then, courts and parties involved have been trying to make this right — most recently with a comprehensive plan signed and ordered by Lee in June. That plan includes several early childhood recommendations.

Judge David Lee said the plans presented by the House and Senate, which are still negotiating the compromise plan, are “woefully short” of what is needed to provide a sound basic education for all students.

In other early learning news: What I’m reading

Can an AI tutor teach your child to read? - From The Hechinger Rerport

Lessons on Child Care, From the Military - From The New York Times

Research & Resources: Let's talk Black families' pandemic experience

A new report from the Equity Research Action Coalition centers on the experiences of the 11.5 million Black babies in the country and their families. More than 60% of those families live 200% below the poverty line, double the rate of white families with babies.

The report looks at the pandemic experiences of 651 Black families with infants and toddlers under 3 years old from the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development-Early Childhood (RAPID-EC) family well-being survey. Black families in the study have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and, the report says, are struggling economically. The families studied have also experienced disruptions in early care and education arrangements, health care, and overall wellbeing.

Families reported experiencing fewer instances of racism and racial discrimination during the pandemic — both as individuals and in terms of concerns for their children —potentially because of lockdown orders, the report found.

“The most commonly reported concerns for children were discouragement from trying new things (57% prior to and 31% during the pandemic), unfair treatment (53% prior to and 35% during the pandemic), harsh punishment (51% prior to and 31% during the pandemic) and poor quality care and education (48% prior to and 35% during the pandemic).”

The report also asked parents whether they discussed racial identity with their children. Many did, with conversations about both the challenges and advantages due to their race being more common among families living below/near poverty.

The report leaves us with three main recommendations:

  • Protecting Black babies and their families from racism, discrimination, and material hardship is necessary to ensure babies thrive throughout their life course.
  • Promoting economic security, health, and access to early learning opportunities is essential to mitigate against the biological and social vulnerability Black babies and their families face due to racism, discrimination, and bias.
  • Preserving Black babies’ cultural identity in the early years is as essential as the “three Rs” of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.
Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.