All of this is happening as schools return for in-person instruction across the country. Many parents wonder: are schools safe? What happens if they don’t follow the public health precautions outlawed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Parents who can take their children out of school or are there other methods to help reduce the risk?
CNN: We’ve discussed this before, but here we are at the start of another school year during the pandemic. As schools reopen, do you think in-person classes are safe from a Covid-19 perspective?
Consider the different layers that can help keep schools safe. The first is that everyone eligible for vaccination be vaccinated. These are parents, teachers, staff, and all adolescents 12 years of age and older. Areas of the country that have higher vaccination rates also have lower infection rates among children.
Improving ventilation also helps, as does masking indoors, keeping children in cohorts, washing hands, ensuring children with symptoms stay home, contact tracing, and other key public health measures. The more prevalent Covid-19 is in your community, the more measures the school will need to prevent transmission within the school.
CNN: What should parents do if their child’s school is in an area with high viral transmission, but does not have many of these measures? Many school districts are even prohibited from requiring masks.
Magnifying glass: It is difficult for parents, students and teachers in this circumstance. They know what it takes to make schools safer, and having these tools taken away from them is, I believe, unacceptable.
Having said that, parents are not helpless here. One thing I would highly recommend is talking to other parents at your child’s school. There is strength in numbers. Can you try to speak to the administration together to express your concerns? Remember the concept of layered protection. If mask requirements are banned for some reason, can there be other measures? For example, can the school provide weekly or bi-weekly tests for all students?
I also suggest talking to other parents in your child’s class. If enough of you are feeling the same, you can regroup and insist that your children wear masks inside. You can make masks the norm in your child’s classroom. Consider talking to the teacher to see if all the children who wear masks can sit together. It also helps reduce the risk for your child.
Also, remember that the quality of the mask your child uses is really important. A simple fabric face covering may not be enough, especially with the more contagious Delta variant dominating at this point. A three-layer surgical mask will be more effective than a cloth mask. If your child is comfortable with an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask, these will offer even better protection. The best mask, however, is one that your child can tolerate consistently and comfortably.
CNN: When should parents be worried enough to take their kids out of school?
Magnifying glass: There is no single answer here. I encourage parents to think about the health of their child and of their home; the alternatives available; the importance of in-person schooling for their child; and what other risks can be reduced.
First, consider the health of your child and that of other members of your household. If your child is generally healthy and everyone living with you is fully immunized, this might be viewed differently than if your child is immunocompromised or if you have a particularly vulnerable family member. Of course, if your child is 12 years of age or older, getting him vaccinated will be crucial to protect him and the rest of the family.
Second, what are the alternatives? For many parents, in-person schooling is essential because they have to work. There may also be no other choice. Virtual learning is not offered in all schools, and many parents may not have the choice of transferring their child to a school that offers more safety precautions.
Third, there are many children who have really suffered without a personal education. In-person school may be necessary for a child’s emotional health, as well as for their continued development.
While it is really crucial for your child to be in school, you should see what other risks can be reduced. Yes, it’s true that removing your child from school can reduce risk, but it should be a last resort. Especially since school is essential for so many parents and children, you should see what other risks you can try to reduce instead.
Remember that the risk is cumulative. If your unvaccinated child has to go to school, work to reduce the risk in other ways. Do not participate in games indoors, but organize them all outdoors. Don’t let your guard down in extracurricular activities – they should use the same precautions you would use during school. Don’t have slumber parties and pizza parties indoors – it would be a shame to be so careful during school hours only so that your child gets infected during social activities after school. And parents can reduce their risk and, for example, always wear masks indoors when around people with unknown immunization status.
CNN: Are there other things you would encourage parents to take to reduce risk in schools?
Magnifying glass: One of the riskiest environments during school hours is lunchtime, when kids aren’t wearing masks and can be crowded. Ask what supplies your school can provide during lunch and snack time. Could the children eat outside? Would this be a choice offered to certain children?
I would also ask about quarantine protocols. How will you know if another child is positive? Is everyone in the class forced to quarantine, or is he testing an option that may reduce the need for a long quarantine – and therefore a long time out of school? This is another case where rapid and frequent testing comes in handy: What kind of testing options are available for students and their families?
CNN: What about children aged 10 and 11 who are not of age to be vaccinated? Should parents try to sneak them in to get them vaccinated or should they wait?
It is best to wait until we have the data that confirms that the vaccine is safe and effective in this younger age group. Note that the dose tested in this group is lower than the dose given to children 12 years and older, so this is another reason to wait.
In the meantime, parents and children must take extra precaution, knowing that this is a particularly dangerous time for children during the pandemic, but that there are steps we can all take to reduce the risk. children, while keeping them at school in person.