If your child is one of the millions of kids who's going to in-person school during the novel coronavirus pandemic, you may be rotating between moments of euphoria and pure panic.
But while it's normal and expected to have concerns, you can take comfort in knowing that kids are less likely than adults to have serious complications from COVID-19, although it's possible they can still transmit it to others, says Jennifer Lighter, MD, an infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health.
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What's more, there's little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission, according to a January 2021 paper in JAMA.
Still, it's smart to be cautious.
The best strategy to keep kids safe at school involves vaccinating all eligible students as well as teachers, staff and household members, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Right now, that includes everyone ages 6 months and older, per the CDC, as well as boosters for those ages 5 and older who are eligible.
But while the vaccines are effective, they don't prevent 100 percent of infections. And your child may have an underlying condition or a family member at home who's at higher risk for severe COVID. With that in mind, here are other precautions you can take to keep your kids safe at school.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Assess the Risk in Your Area
School districts in various parts of the country have seen outbreaks in large part because they returned to school when rates of COVID-19 were still high in their area, Dr. Lighter explains.
The lowest risk of transmission in schools is when there has been fewer than 10 per 100,000 cases within the last seven days, as well as a positive test rate of under 5 percent, per the CDC.
If community transmission is high and vaccination levels are low, students and staff are more likely to come to school while infectious and spread the virus, per the CDC.
If the risk is moderate or high, that doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't send your kids, but it's worth noting to help you gauge how cautious you need to be.
If your child or another member of your household has an underlying condition, it's also probably a good idea to have a discussion with your pediatrician about the risks, Dr. Lighter says.
You can get a sense of how both your state and county are doing at CovidActNow.org.
2. Make Sure Your School Is Following Safety Precautions
Many schools aren't requiring masks anymore, but they should still have a contact tracing plan in place, in case someone at the school tests positive.
That way, they can quickly figure out who has been in close proximity to the infected person — usually defined as someone who's been within 6 feet of the individual for at least 15 minutes starting from two days before they got sick, per the CDC — and have them quarantine.
3. Send Your Kid to School With the Right Supplies
Many schools aren't requiring masks anymore. But if community transmission is high in your area, consider sending your child with a surgical mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
There's no need to go overboard with hand wipes and disinfectant sprays, Dr. Lighter says.
"We know now that the main way the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread is through aerosols — we're much less worried about infection from surfaces," she explains.
Make sure your child knows how to wear a mask properly, too. That is, kids shouldn't "make mistakes like letting it slip down under their nose," Dr. Lighter says.
Hand sanitizer is also key, but just make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Teach Kids When — and How — to Use Hand Sanitizer
Make sure kids understand that anytime they touch a commonly grabbed surface — such as doorknobs or stair railings — they should quickly sanitize their hands afterward by either washing them or using hand sanitizer.
Explain to kids how to sanitize their hands: Apply enough sanitizer to coat the whole surface, then rub until dry, per the CDC.
“Don’t talk to them about it in a scary way — explain it as they’re doing their part against COVID-19, so they can feel part of the solution,” Dr. Lighter says. “You don’t want to make them so fearful that they’re too afraid to enjoy school.”
4. Encourage a Hand-Washing Habit
As soon as your kids set foot inside your house after being at school (or anywhere else), they should head to the bathroom and wash their hands thoroughly, advises Michael Chang, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston.
Make sure they lather soap all over their hands, including on the backs, between their fingers and under their nails for at least 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
After that, they — and you — really don't need to do anything more, stresses Dr. Chang. There's no need to disinfect everything they came home with.
"There's really no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through items such as shoes, clothes, books and backpacks," Dr. Chang says.
Instead, a better use of your time is to do a quick symptom check.
"If they come home and complain about their throat feeling scratchy, or they have a headache or complain that their food tastes funny, you will want to watch them closely to see if it goes away after a couple hours or if it persists," Dr. Chang notes. "These can all be symptoms of COVID-19."
5. Err on the Side of Caution
If your kid shows any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 — even if it's just a mild cough or runny nose — keep them home and call your pediatrician.
"A lot of children will have runny noses and sore throats, and most of the time, it won't be COVID-19," Dr. Chang says. "But the only way to know that for sure is to get tested. It's inconvenient for parents, and it may mean your child will miss more school than you'd like, but it could save lives."
At some point, you may get the dreaded call that one of your child's classmates tested positive for COVID-19 and they need to quarantine. While you should take it seriously, you don't need to panic, Dr. Lighter says.
While your child is home, their siblings can continue to attend school. To be safe, though, it's a good idea to have the child who is quarantining use a separate bathroom from the rest of your family and wear a mask as much as possible around other family members.
6. Be Smart About Sports
The January 2021 JAMA paper notes that contact during both sports practices and competition, and at social gatherings associated with team sports, seems to increase the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. The authors specifically point to indoor practice or competition and school-related social gatherings with limited adherence to physical distancing and other mitigation strategies.
So, if they can't play outdoors and the sport requires a lot of close contact with others, consider whether skipping athletics for now might be a better option.
At the very least, the CDC encourages schools to do screening testing of anyone not fully vaccinated up to 24 hours before extracurricular events, and to cancel high-risk, in-person activities in areas of high community transmission unless everyone participating is fully vaccinated.
We're going to be living with COVID-19 for a while, Dr. Chang says. "That doesn't mean kids won't be able to play certain sports, but we all have to be smart about our choices."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the pandemic:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Contact Tracing for COVID-19"
- Wake Forest Baptist Health: "Testing Shows Type of Cloth Used in Homemade Masks Makes a Difference, Doctors Say"
- CDC: "Hand Sanitizer Use Out and About"
- American Academy of Pediatrics: "COVID-19 Planning Reconsiderations: Guidelines for School Re-entry"
- Health Affairs: "Community Use Of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment Of State Mandates In The US"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Q&A for Consumers | Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19"
- Physics of Fluids: "Visualizing the effectiveness of face masks in obstructing respiratory jets"
- JAMA: "Data and Policy to Guide Opening Schools Safely to Limit the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Infection"
- CDC: "COVID-19 Vaccination for Children 5-11 Years Old"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.