Posted by Michael Barber, August 11, 2021 (last updated on September 02, 2021)
The beginning of a new school year is always hectic, but right now parents have more than ever to navigate as students prepare to head into their second academic year with the pandemic. While public health officials agree that a full return to in-person learning is best for students, the ever-changing news cycle continues to raise questions about things like mask mandates and the Delta variant.
The good news is the risks associated with keeping children at home outweigh the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 among children, even in those who become infected with the Delta variant. Research also shows that schools are not major sources of COVID transmission when precautionary measures are implemented and enforced. And schools are now better equipped to help prevent transmission. Here's what you need to know heading into the new school year.
How does the Delta variant affect kids?
Overall, children diagnosed with COVID are more likely to have mild symptoms or no symptoms. Currently, there is no indication that the Delta variant puts children at a higher risk of serious illness. The Delta variant is more contagious, and children, as well as unvaccinated adults, are more likely to become infected with this variant. However, the Delta variant does not appear to lead to more serious infection in children.
Initial symptoms of the Delta variant can be different, though: whereas the loss of taste and smell were key signs of infection with previous variants, people infected with the Delta variant may experience more stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. As with previous variants, people infected with the Delta variant may not experience any symptoms at all. For younger people, the Delta variant may feel more like a bad cold.
Is it safe to send kids back to school?
The CDC reports that health and safety measures enacted to prevent the spread of COVID in schools have been largely successful . Although some outbreaks have occurred in schools, transmission within schools is typically lower than community transmission, when schools use prevention strategies as recommended. While some schools have experienced breakouts, they occurred at schools that did not properly implement prevention strategies or grew lax in their enforcement.
Precautions such as wearing masks indoors, keeping students at least three feet apart, improving ventilation, encouraging hand washing, instructing students to stay home when sick, dividing students and teachers into distinct groups, and making COVID tests available in schools have been shown to decrease the risk of COVID transmission .
What to expect from this school year
Cases in schools are likely to increase when cases in the greater community surge. Keep an eye on infection rates in your area and expect some possible disruption to in-person school if infection rates rise. Have a plan in case of school closures or additional periods of quarantine. Websites like care.com or urbansitter.com are great resources for finding community sitters. Join or start a local parents' Facebook group to source sitter recommendations or form a sitter co-op. If you have local friends and family members who can help with childcare, find out their availability ahead of time in case of an outbreak.
While it’s not yet clear how effective these precautions will be against the Delta variant, far more people are now vaccinated, including teachers and school staff, which should help transmission rates remain low in schools when exercising other safety measures.
Expect to see a lot of common colds during the first few months of the school year as we readjust to close contact. Make sure everyone in your household gets a flu vaccine as soon as they are available to cut down on flu risk.
What you can do
- Remind children of the importance of wearing masks and washing their hands.
- Make sure children know how to wear their masks properly (covering both the mouth and nose).
- Check with your child each morning for signs of illness and take their temperature. If your child has a temperature of 100.4 or higher, keep them at home.
- Keep your child home if they show other signs of illness, such as sore throat, cough, severe headache, vomiting, stomach pain, or body aches.
- Consider keeping your child home if they have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID. Check with your school and make sure you understand their recommendations around quarantining after possible exposure.
- Have a plan for where to get tested in case your child develops symptoms. Check with your school; many are providing free COVID testing resources for their families. You can also find and book COVID testing on Solv.
- Make sure your child is up to date for any recommended vaccines, including the flu vaccine. All school-aged children should get a flu vaccine every year. It is not yet known if getting the flu and COVID at the same time will cause more serious illness.
- Send your child to school with a backup mask and hand sanitizer. Consider also packing a reusable water bottle, so they don’t have to drink from shared water fountains.
- Make sure your emergency contact information at school is current.
- Vaccinate everyone in the family as soon as they are eligible. Children have a very low risk of severe illness or death from COVID, but health authorities still encourage vaccination for everyone who is eligible. Visit our COVID Vaccine Resource Center to learn about the latest vaccine updates.
- Reduce risk for the entire family by continuing to avoid crowds and indoor spaces where you could come into contact with unvaccinated people.
Is it safe for my child to ride the school bus?
If your child rides the bus, talk to them about safety precautions during the bus ride. Again, emphasize the importance of wearing a mask. By federal order, masks are required on public transportation, which includes school buses.
Ask your school what they are doing to ensure the health and safety of students and drivers. The American School Bus Council has developed recommendations for slowing the spread of COVID-19, which include testing drivers and increased cleaning of high-touch surfaces .
Is it safe for my child to continue playing sports during the school year?
Close-contact or indoor sports create an increased risk of COVID transmission. The safest course of action is to avoid close-contact or indoor sports. However, being involved in sports is very important for some students, and research shows that students who participated in sports during the 2020-2021 school year experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as higher quality of life scores . Talk to your children about the risks and benefits of being involved in sports, and take necessary precautions to reduce the risk of infection. For those who choose to play close-contact sports, the CDC recommends wearing a mask, playing outside if possible, and avoiding crowds.
Talk to your school staff and coaches to find out what other preventive measures they are taking to reduce the spread of COVID among student-athletes. For example, players may be encouraged to maintain their distance when not actively engaged in gameplay or wait in their cars until just before the beginning of practice or a game. In addition, discourage your children from greeting teammates with physical forms of contact such as a hug or handshake, and suggest gestures such as air high-fives or elbow bumps instead. Finally, make sure your child has their own water bottle, so they don’t have to drink from shared water sources.
When will vaccines be available for children?
Vaccines for children between the ages of 5 and 11 are expected to be available later this year or the first quarter of 2022 at the latest . Stay up to date on the latest vaccine news by visiting our Vaccine Resource Center.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/transmission_k_12_schools.html
- American School Bus Council. http://www.americanschoolbuscouncil.org/covid-19/
- medRxiv. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.02.07.21251314v1
- National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/05/20/998533237/fauci-says-he-expects-vaccines-for-younger-children-by-end-of-year-or-early-2022