What safety measures students will experience in their classrooms this fall will vary by school district. Regardless of what their school’s health and safety plans look like, parents can take steps to keep their kids safely in school as the delta variant of SARS-CoV- 2 ― the virus that causes COVID-19 ― rages throughout central Pennsylvania.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” said Dr. Jessica Ericson, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. “We still have many people getting sick — including children and teens. To pretend that it’s safe to do nothing is the wrong approach. But we can also get our kids back into the classroom where they can have all the benefits of in-person learning.”
The delta variant is two to three times more transmissible than the original strain, with estimates that each infected person, on average, transmits the virus to five or more other people. And the delta infects people more quickly.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all students wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Additionally, the two groups advise that students maintain a distance of three feet between one another, and that everyone who is old enough to get the vaccine — age 12 and up — get it.
“It’s easy for parents to keep their kids safe if they’re in a school district that’s implementing all the recommendations from the AAP and the CDC,” Ericson said. “Just do what the district requires.”
When masks are optional
For schools that have made masks optional, Ericson advises parents to have their children wear them anyway. “It’s clear that masks significantly reduce the risk of infection,” she said.
It might be difficult, however, for parents to control what their children do once they’re among classmates.
“I don’t know what ‘mask optional’ really means for young children,” Ericson said. “It may vary by school district. Does it mean the parent gets to decide that their child will wear a mask, and the school will help the child follow what the parent wants? Or does it mean that the child is left to decide when they enter the building whether to keep their mask on or put it in their pocket? Without support from the teachers, we’ll now have 6 year olds who are deciding what to do for their own health care.”
For schools that don’t require masks, Ericson suggests that parents give their child incentives to wear masks and also talk to their teachers about how important it is for their child and family that their child wear a mask.
“For younger children, you can encourage them to do certain things at home, but they’ll forget about it by the time they get on the bus,” Ericson said.
For older students, Ericson recommends that families have conversations about what the parents feel is safe and what they would like to see their children do while at school.
“Of course, once they get to school, they may not want to follow your wishes in the face of peer pressure,” Ericson said. “So talk to them about why you feel wearing a mask is important and why you want them to social distance. Tell them that if they notice a student next to them is coughing, they should advocate for their own health and ask to be moved to a different seat.”
Ericson also advises parents to be active members of their school community. “Attend the board meetings and know what’s going on,” she said.
The power of vaccinations
In addition to wearing a mask at school, Ericson strongly recommends that children 12 and older and their parents get vaccinated.
“The reason to do both of these things is that none of the prevention measures is 100% effective,” she said. “Being vaccinated, wearing a mask and staying three feet apart from other people when possible are all going to add together to reduce the risk.”
Having eligible children vaccinated also provides other benefits, Ericson said. “It will put them into another category if there’s an exposure at school.” If someone in their classroom ends up with COVID-19, vaccinated students will likely be able to continue attending school in person and participating in extracurricular activities, she explains. “Vaccination gives students the greatest likelihood of having a normal school year, one where they’re not in and out of the classroom and in out of sports because of isolating.”
Providing kids with some semblance of normal this school year is something that the AAP, the CDC and pediatricians like Ericson want to see happen.
“It’s so important, not just for their academic learning but also for their social development and their psychological health,” Ericson said. “We’ve learned a lot over the past year and a half about how to keep kids in school and keep them safe. We’re at the exciting moment where we can have our kids go to school and provide them with the tools they need to do that in a safe way. The all-or-nothing approach — that to be safe, kids need to stay home, or to go to school we have to accept all risks — is a false dichotomy. Parents don’t have to choose one or the other this year.”
Dr. Jessica Ericson is a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Penn State College of Medicine.