Q&A: how can I keep my family safe from Covid as US schools reopen? | Coronavirus

Across the USA, schools are opening their doors. For some students, this fall marks the first time back in a classroom in more than a year.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree about prioritizing in-person learning. But the return to school isn’t without risk.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for Covid-19 vaccination. Though kids are far less likely than unvaccinated adults to develop severe illness, they are able to become infected with the virus.

Children can also contribute to the community spread of Covid-19. This is particularly concerning in light of surging nationwide case rates, and the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant.

As students and their families gear up for the change in routine, many find themselves balancing health concerns with stress and anxiety about how to approach the transition – and keep their kids and communities safe.

What do we have to do to keep schools open?

Tara C Smith: Keeping schools open means keeping Covid-19 infections low.

For teens older than 12, vaccination is the most important factor in keeping schools open. For unvaccinated children, masking is the best strategy. Even if your district doesn’t require face masks, your unvaccinated child should wear one.

Get a high-quality cloth or surgical mask and make sure your child wears it well. Emphasize how important it is to keep it on for any activity besides eating. Send an extra mask to school in your kid’s backpack, just in case.

Cassandra M Pierre: Parents who haven’t yet been vaccinated should do so. Your vaccination won’t reduce your child’s risk for an infection at school, but kids who have an in-class exposure are generally exposed by children who are infected in their household or in the community. Increasing the proportion of vaccinated people in households and the community will be an important strategy for protecting kids in the classroom.

Should entire schools or daycares close when one child tests positive?

Smith: Probably not. In the event of a positive case, schools should send the infected student and their close contacts home for isolation. This type of system worked well for preventing outbreaks in US schools last year, but that may be partially due to the higher percentage of kids in remote learning. That said, schools should have a plan in place for their infection prevalence threshold and when to move to a temporary remote option.

What should I do if my kid has the sniffles or a low-grade fever, with no known Covid-19 exposure?

Smith: We may see other viral illnesses spread upon re-entry. Should your child come down with cold- or flu-like symptoms, get them tested ASAP to rule out Covid-19 (even without a known exposure). If the test is negative, your school should have protocol about when it’s OK to return to school.

Pierre: Testing and isolation may get exhausting after a few rounds, so have a testing protocol in place before the school year begins. Identify a nearby testing site with a reasonable turnaround time (and with a test your school accepts) so you don’t have to figure it out at 7AM on Monday.

Should I be taking any other additional hygiene or safety precautions?

Pierre: Masking and physical distancing are still the best prevention tools. Less than 1% of Covid-19 cases have been attributable to surface contamination, and there’s no reason to believe the new variants behave differently in that regard. If you wash your kids’ clothes or encourage a bath after school, do so to quell your own unease.

Keep all non-school activities (including play-dates) outdoors and, if possible, masked.

Are after-school activities OK?

Pierre: It’s important for children to participate in activities they’ve been missing, but after-school programs may not be as strict about mask-wearing and distancing as schools.

If your kids participate in extracurricular activities, reinforce safety precautions like mask-wearing and physical distancing, especially among unvaccinated children. Choose as many outdoor activities as possible, and even outside, encourage kids to maintain a physical distance of at least 3ft.

Does the whole family need to quarantine if a child is exposed to Covid-19 at school?

Pierre: You’re not considered formally exposed to Covid-19 unless your child tests positive, but it’s a good idea to isolate as a family if anyone at home has any cold- or flu-like symptoms. There’s no recommendation for a strict quarantine in this case (someone can still go get the groceries and cough medicine), but maskless interaction with others – regardless of their vaccination status – should be postponed. If the child is asymptomatic following an exposure, there’s no indication to formally isolate.

What if my child is exposed to Covid-19 at home?

Pierre: If your child is exposed to Covid-19 at home, you can be extra careful by wearing a mask at home and keeping physical distance from your child.

What can I do if my kid won’t wear a mask?

Walter Gilliam: Your attitude about masking can shape how your kid feels about wearing one. Children, especially young ones, take their cues about how to think and behave in their environments from adults around them. A parent’s mood, emotions, and anxiety become the child’s.

To help your child feel more comfortable with masks, make sure you’re comfortable yourself.

Practice mask-wearing at home or in other environments, and tell your child it’s your job to keep them safe, and wearing a mask is one way to do that.

It’s also worth remembering that kids are far more adaptive than adults. Really young children don’t have a developed sense of “normal” and “not normal”. Their normal is whatever is happening around them, right now.

Will wearing a mask in school stunt my child’s social or emotional development?

Gilliam: In short: no.

While many parents and childcare providers worry kids won’t pick up on social cues when they can’t see someone’s mouth, facial expressions don’t only happen on the part of the face that’s covered. People express worry with their brows, smile with their eyes, move their hands, and adjust their tone of voice and posture to non-verbally communicate, too. Children are already better at this than we think, and they will get even better at reading these signals with a mask on.

What new behaviors or issues should I expect from my child during this stressful transition?

Gilliam: Back-to-school stress will likely surface among kids in a few ways: acting-out behaviors (such as tantrums or frustration), anxiety (such as worrying or clinginess), physical experiences of stress (stomachaches, trouble sleeping, or bedwetting), and social anxiety (worry about making friends or what peers think).

Kids usually respond these ways because they feel out of control. The best way for parents to help is by managing their own stress and worries. You may think you’re hiding your stress, but you’re probably not.

Connecting with your child’s teacher before school starts could also stave off your child’s stress. At minimum, learn their name and use it at home. If your child feels there’s a strong relationship between a parent and teacher, they’ll feel more comfortable going to school.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity

Experts:

Tara C Smith is a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University.

Cassandra M Pierre is an infectious disease physician and medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center.

Walter Gilliam is a professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center.