This year, K-12 schools in Kern County will open to a degree they haven't since the pandemic shuttered them in March 2020.
Though some schools reopened last fall and then more in the spring, many students never showed up to campus. But this month, schools are preparing for most students to arrive in person for the first time in 17 months.
On a Friday afternoon, the maintenance and operations department of Standard School District was preparing its bus fleet. Its warehouse was fully stocked with personal protective equipment. Kits were being prepared for each classroom with a daily mask for each student, gloves, a thermometer and plenty of hand sanitizer.
Schools are opening on the heels of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in California, attributed to a more contagious delta variant.
This has worried some local parents. Administrators at Delano Union, which opened weeks before most Kern County school districts, noted that as news of delta cases spread, it prompted some to opt for the district's independent learning option.
Other parents have complained about the statewide school mask mandates. One local group, Kids First Kern, is lobbying against them.
The Californian spoke to local health experts about how COVID has been affecting Kern's youngest residents, and what parents can do to keep their children safe.
How COVID affects children
Dr. Fernando Fan, the local chief of pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente, notes that generally children tend to do well when they have COVID, unlike older populations. They experience mild to moderate symptoms. They're usually better after one to two days, but sometimes symptoms will last seven to 10 days. They still can be asymptomatic transmitters.
Over the course of the pandemic, 14,343 Kern County residents under the age of 18 have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Kern County COVID-19 dashboard. None have died.
A small subset of youths develop a rare inflammatory condition. Usually, those cases appears four to six weeks after a surge. In Kern County, there have been 20 such cases.
It's a very low number, but the cases can be very serious and require long-term hospitalization, Fan said. It can cause serious heart, lung and kidney issues. Who it strikes tends to be unpredictable. That's part of the reason he advocates for protective measures such as hand-washing, masking and vaccination.
"We don’t know which kids end up in that category," Fan said.
He said that little is known about how the delta variant affects children specifically or how deadly it is compared to earlier variants. What is known is that it is more contagious. That is worrisome, he said, because the more people who contract COVID, the more who will experience more severe symptoms and die.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department has noted a general trend: the proportion of children diagnosed with COVID began to rise sharply in the spring. During the wave in July 2020, those 18 years old and younger represented 12.96 percent of cases.
But Brynn Carrigan, director of Kern County Public Health Services, notes that as the case rates declined, adults were vaccinated and restrictions eased in spring, children made up a larger proportion of COVID cases. This peaked in May 2021 when those 18 and younger made up 21.3 percent of cases. Currently, as cases have risen again, they make up 18.78 percent of cases.
Carrigan said the recent rise in cases among young Kern residents has been reflected in raw data as well.
How to protect children
Fan said vaccination is an important layer of protection — both for those old enough to get vaccinated and their family members. It helps keep older family members from passing it on to their children, but it's also protection for adults who may be worried that their child might not always mask up or distance 100 percent of the time. Carrigan agrees.
"Vaccination is the safest and most effective way to keep themselves safe from COVID-19," said Carrigan.
Fan said the mRNA vaccine has been in development for quite some time, which is why it could be rolled out so quickly. It doesn't cause issues with fertility, which is misinformation. He said the body actually degrades the vaccine after a few days and there is no trace. He describes the process as "ingenious."
Most young people who are eligible for a vaccine have not received it in Kern County. Those 12 and older are currently eligible.
Right now, 21.6 percent of those 12 to 17 years old in Kern County have completed their vaccination series. That's about half of Kern County's already low vaccination rate.
It has been going up about 1 percent each week recently, Carrigan said. Some students are getting a COVID vaccination as a part of their back-to-school immunization clinics. The county will soon offer its own clinics with COVID vaccines, too.
Fan added that masking is important for children, especially as case rates are going up. He is a big proponent of masking in schools and in public. He notes that in other countries where mask supplies have dwindled or run out, health care workers have died.
"Masks save lives," he said. "It has saved U.S. doctors’ lives."
He notes that parents who wear masks properly tend to have children who do, too. Children who come in wearing masks under their nose tend to have parents who do that, too.
"We have to talk to our children and tell them how important it is," he said.
Fan suggests making sure that when students go to school, they have a mask that is comfortable. Students with glasses might need some adjustments so theirs won't fog up. Really thick masks when it's hot will be uncomfortable, but he recommends masks that have at least two layers to be protective.
He said that every mouth covered in a classroom reduces transmission. But masks are just one layer, along with distancing, hand-washing and vaccination.
Carrigan said parents should also remind their children not to share food or drinks. She emphasizes just how important it is that students assess themselves for any possible COVID-19 symptoms.
"If you feel the slightest bit off, stay home," she said.