etting the kids ready to go back to school each fall is stressful enough in a normal year, never mind in the midst of a pandemic. Between the more significant Delta coronavirus variant, rising cases across the country and new masking guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there's a lot for parents to navigate as they plan schools to reopen in August and September this year.
In the end it seems like time to get kids back in their classrooms. Remote learning - particularly for students of color — set many children back academically, cut them off from essential social services like free or reduced-cost meals, and took a major toll on their mental health. As many districts have restricted homeschooling programs, even most reluctant parents may have little choice but to send their children back to school, short of remote schooling.
Of course, the worry is that in-classroom learning could facilitate the ongoing spread of COVID - 19. However, a year of viral advancement means that schools may better be equipped to prevent viral spread in their classrooms, hallways and locker rooms. Public health experts and school administrators now know that layered mitigation methods, including face masks, distancing and ventilation can help reduce transmission. Vaccination for kids and teens over 12: How can I get vaccinated?
To help parents of children navigate the upcoming back-to-school season, TIME spoke with pediatric infectious disease experts about how to keep kids safe this year -- and those around them.
It is rare for COVID-19 to cause severe illness among school-age children, but it does happen. Those with underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, immune disorders and diabetes, are at higher risk, according to the CDC. Some 400 children died sparked by COVID - 19 in the U.S., according to CDC data. The death is tragic but the figure represents only around 0.01% of children confirmed to be positive for the disease. In other words, it's unlikely that children will ever experience the worst impacts of the virus.
While children can also develop 'long COVID'— suffering from persistent COVID - 19 symptoms long after getting infected — preliminary evidence suggests the condition is far less common in children than adults. A study by Swiss researchers published on 15 July found that only 4% percent of the kids surveyed who had tested positive for COVID - 19 were still experiencing symptoms after 12 weeks.
There is also a lot we don't know about COVID 19 - 19. Dr. Aaron Milstone, a professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, notes that some viral illnesses, like measles, can cause harm years after exposure in children, and we can't know for sure that COVID 19 won't have future consequences. I do think it's important to acknowledge that there are unknown risks, although small, he says.
Did Delta's variant change the risk of getting COVID 19 in school?
The Delta variant is more transmissible than the SARS-CoV -2 version that circulated for most of the previous 16 months or so, which means it could spread faster in schools than elsewhere. Although it doesn't seem to cause more severe illness Dr. Sean O'Leary, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of MedicineColorado School of Medicine, says he is concerned that children could carry the virus back home to vulnerable family members or in the other direction, putting teachers and staffers at risk. I think it has the potential to be bad, he says.
Delta's emergence is a reminder that schools must stay flexible as the virus continues to circulate. Milstone points out that the dynamics of the pandemic are changing over time — vaccine-generated immunity can wane over time, people of mixed vaccination status are socializing with one another and fewer people are taking precautions like masking or distancing. 'We must be vigilant with viruses, Milstone says.
The best method of preventative measure, of course, is mass vaccination. And most evidence suggests that Delta variants of Pfizer-BioNTech, the only vaccination available in the U.S. for children aged 12-15, will be effective against the vaccine. Vaccines aside, schools can help protect students, teachers and staff by implementing 'layered' prevention methods including masks, distancing and ventilation, says Dr. William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in the University of Vermont Medical Center. These efforts are especially important for protecting students younger than 12 who can't yet be vaccinated.
Is there any option for a child to carry COVID - 19 with them?
Children can pass COVID -19 to other people, although the risk of transmission tends to be higher with older children, says Dr. Liz Whittaker, a senior clinical lecturer in pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Imperial College London. The study conducted in December 2020 in South Korea involving 5,706 COVID patients found that children less than 9 years old were more likely to spread the virus to other groups compared to kids aged 10 - 19 who seemed to spread it as much as adults.
The Community Gimmick is the best way to limit these risks. What we've seen throughout the pandemic, including this Delta variant, is that the number of cases in kids basically reflect what's going on in the surrounding community, he says. 'The most important thing to do to help schools be successful this year is get everyone vaccinated, down to age 12. If schools practice layered mitigation methods, it should keep teachers at low risk of infection, says O'Leary, especially if they are vaccinated.
Parents can take steps to reduce outbreaks in schools as well. Whittaker urges families to have their children home if they seem unwell and consider having older children wear a mask even if they're not going to school — and even if they're vaccinated — in order to keep the people around them safe. And don't forget the basics, she adds. If she says "Like washing your hands before you eat" what we should do all the time, she says.
He hasn't been a major driver of COVID outbreaks so far. Instead, they are more likely to reflect the level of transmission that is already occurring in a given community.
In an April study published by researchers who studied North Carolina schools with 90,000 in-person students and staff found only 32 local infections in the school-based community over a nine week period, while 773 other people in the community were infected elsewhere in the community. It's important to note that the schools studied for that paper practised mitigation strategies like universal masking, 6 - foot distancing and symptom monitoring.
That said, Milstone notes schools 'tendend to be more conservative' and take more precautions to reduce viral spread compared to other institutions. In fact, students aren't more dangerous than other activities many young kids are already doing, he says. I would say a kid who's masked at school is less likely to bring COVID 19 home from school than they are from bringing it home from their Sunday School Group or a birthday party with 10 other kids where they're probably not masked.
If your child is too young to get vaccinated, getting vaccine yourself is one of the best ways to prevent them from contracting COVID -19 as it reduces the risk you'll have spread the disease to other people. If you're sending a baby to school, you absolutely want to make sure you are vaccinated if the child is too young to be vaccinated, says O'Leary.
O'Leary also tells parents that they should take a close look at the mitigation measures their child's school is in place, including whether face masks are required and advocate for more precautions. Regardless of the school's policy, it might be smart to talk with children about wearing face masks. According to O'Leary, children are 'better than adults in wearing masks!
If your children are 12 or older and eligible, get them vaccinated and don't wait. People don't be considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second Pfizer shot, which is usually scheduled three to four weeks after their first injection. That timetable means you need to go ASAP to ensure your child is protected for his first day of school.
Milstone admits his perspective as an infectious disease physician with his career sees an unusual number of children very sick with COVID - 19. All the same, he says that it is very difficult to see children die from an infection that can be prevented by vaccination.
'I have said this my whole career, right? Surely he has never heard of the Englishman until now. 'It's really disconcerting to watch people die of vaccine preventable diseases.