Central Pennsylvania school districts and the nation’s health experts have made the safe return to the physical classroom this fall a priority. What should parents expect, and how should they prepare their kids for the new school year?
AAP, CDC guidance for masking in schools
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that all students ages 2 and older as well as all school staff should wear face masks at school, regardless of their vaccination status. For guidance on additional mitigation efforts, such as physical distancing, testing, contact tracing, ventilation, and cleaning and disinfecting, the group advises schools to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
On July 27, the CDC announced it had revised its guidelines for masking, now calling for fully vaccinated people to wear masks in public, indoor settings where there are high levels of COVID transmission. Pennsylvania is not currently among those regions with high infection rates. However, the CDC also joined the AAP’s approach to masking in schools, stating now that all adults and students should wear masks in K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status. Previously, the agency called for masking by all students ages 2 and older who were not fully vaccinated, as well as by any unvaccinated staff.
Additionally, the CDC recommends schools provide three feet of physical distance between students within classrooms to reduce the risk of transmission.
“The ultimate goal for both the AAP and the CDC is the same — to get kids back to in-person, face-to-face classrooms again and to do it as safely as possible,” said Dr. Patrick Gavigan, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. “Both groups provide guidelines giving latitude and flexibility to local health departments and school districts to make adjustments as they see fit based on changes in the local epidemiology of COVID infections.”
Anticipate changing guidelines
Pennsylvania’s departments of Health and Education thus far are leaving the question of masking up to the state’s 500 school districts, advising but not mandating them to follow the CDC’s recommendations for back-to-school safety measures. School districts across the commonwealth have drafted their own health and safety plans for 2021-2022. Many call for masks to be optional.
Gavigan said parents should anticipate changes with their school’s planned COVID mitigation efforts. Last year, 85% of Pennsylvania school districts needed to alter their instructional blueprints at some point during the academic year, forcing students and their families to adjust. The infectious diseases physician also strongly advised that children who have yet to be vaccinated should wear a mask while in school, regardless of whether their districts require it.
“We know from data collected last year, before vaccinations became available, that if kids go to in-person school wearing masks and follow in-person safety protocols and policies, the risk of transmission in the schools is low,” Gavigan said. “These policies work.”
School districts’ decision on whether to require students or staff to continue wearing masks after becoming fully vaccinated is a bit trickier, according to Gavigan.
“Our kids who are vaccinated have a lower risk of getting COVID and a significantly lower risk for getting seriously ill from COVID,” he said. “But if there are high rates of infection in the community or low-rates of vaccinated individuals then the risk of breakthrough infections will be higher. Any parents who are worried about a breakthrough infection in their vaccinated kidscan and should have their vaccinated child wear a mask.”
Other parents are concerned that continued mask wearing is unhealthy, potentially exposing their children to harmful bacteria or fungi that may accumulate on the mask.
“There are no studies that show wearing masks properly — cleaning or replacing them regularly as well as anytime they become visibly soiled — is dangerous to kids,” Gavigan said. “There is no risk of infection to kids wearing masks. In fact, when we look across the country at last winter’s rates of other respiratory infections like influenza and bacterial pneumonia, we saw almost none. The masks are protecting kids from the usual winter infections as well as COVID.”
Risks from COVID variants
The best-laid plans to return to a somewhat normal school year face many uncertainties — including the emergence of COVID variants that are driving up infection rates.
“As new variants emerge, those that stick around — like the delta variant — are more easily spread,” Gavigan said. “We’ll face a surge of infections once we bring a large cohort of unvaccinated individuals together, which will happen when school starts. It’s essential to adhere to smart prevention policies.”
Both the CDC and the AAP have called for schools to put multiple layers of protection in place, Gavigan said. “Wearing a mask is a layer. Having adequate ventilation is a layer. Screening, quarantining, isolating — these are all layers that will help make returning to school as safe as possible.”
When asked what parents can do to help keep their children safe at school this year, Gavigan stressed the importance of one specific layer: vaccinations.
“Kids who are able to be vaccinated should get vaccinated,” he said. “The greater the number of vaccinated people, the less likely large outbreaks become.” Currently, experts anticipate that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will grant emergency use authorization to children to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in early 2022.
Until then, schools will continue to evaluate and revise their safety plans to keep kids in the classroom.
“Last year, we saw how detrimental disrupted routines and remote learning were to children,” Gavigan said. “One of the toughest things about planning for COVID is knowing what to expect in the future. The virus and its variants are still so new and change so quickly. It’s crucial that parents follow the additional policies their schools may put in place so that their kids can remain in school this year.”
Dr. Patrick Gavigan is a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases at Penn State College of Medicine.