As we've learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, going to school in person is how children and teens learn best. Many students also get vital resources they need to thrive at school. Now, even more students are eligible to get COVID-19 vaccines.
When more kids are fully vaccinated, it means they are at a lower risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19. This means less time away from learning and more time for sports, friendships and activities.
Making sure that all eligible children and adults get the COVID-19 vaccine is one part. To help everyone stay healthy, the whole school community should keep wearing a face mask, physical distancing, wash hands and stay home when sick. These steps are even better when combined with good ventilation, screening, and contact tracing in a school community.
Ways to keep your student as safe possible
Everyone can do their part to help ensure students and staff stay healthy — and physically together in school:
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all eligible children and adolescents who are 5 years of age and older receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Adults and children should get fully immunized as soon as possible.
Even if your child has recovered from COVID-19 illness, they should get the vaccine. Everyone who is eligible should get the vaccine unless they have contraindications.
Face masks are a simple, proven tool to help stop the spread of the virus to students unable to get the vaccine or to those who may have a condition that puts them at higher risk of getting sick even if they have been vaccinated.
Fully vaccinated people can still become infected with COVID-19 and spread the virus to others. That is one reason why everyone over age 2 years should keep wearing a mask that covers the nose and mouth. The delta and delta plus COVID-19 variants that are circulating now are more contagious and may cause more severe illness. People who have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine are less likely to get very sick or die from the variants. As a bonus, masks can help stop the spread of other infections like the common cold or the flu.
The mask should fit well and be worn correctly and consistently. Even most children with medical conditions can safely and effectively wear face masks with practice, support and role-modeling by adults. Talk with your pediatrician if you think your child has a medical or developmental condition that would limit mask use.
Students — including those who are fully vaccinated — should remain at least 3 feet apart within classrooms when possible. In general, CDC recommends people who are not fully vaccinated maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet from other people who are not in their household. However, several studies from the 2020-2021 school year show low COVID-19 transmission levels among students in schools that had less than 6 feet of physical distance when the school used other prevention strategies, such as the use of masks.
When possible, schools should use outdoor spaces and unused spaces for instruction and meals to help with distancing. Activities like singing, band and exercising, for example, are safest outdoors and spread out.
Screening testing identifies infected people. It can be used to identify those with or without symptoms and people who may be contagious before they have symptoms . This can help slow the spread of the virus to others. Screening testing can be offered to students who have not been fully vaccinated and may be most valuable when there are higher levels of COVID-19 cases in the community. Screening testing can also offer added protection for schools that are not able to provide optimal physical distance between students. Screening testing should also be offered to all teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated. To be effective, the screening program should test at least once per week, and rapidly (within 24 hours) report results.
Diagnostic testing is recommended when someone has COVID-19 symptoms, or recent known or suspected exposure to the virus.
Children appear less likely than adults to have symptoms and severe illness from COVID-19. Even with physical distancing, masking and vaccination, schools need to plan for exposures especially with new virus variants circulating. .
If a student or staff member has close contact with someone known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, they should quarantine as recommended by local public health officials unless they are fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be tested 5 to 7 days after exposure, whether they have symptoms or not.
In addition to safety plans, there are other factors that school communities need to address:
Students at higher risk
If your child has any chronic, high-risk medical conditions, they may need extra accommodations to stay safe. Talk with your pediatrician and school staff (including school nurses) to explore options for safe in-person, blended, or remote learning.
Students with disabilities
The return to in-person school may have had a greater impact on students with disabilities. Students may still have a hard time transitioning to in-school learning and missed instruction time. Or they may have had less access to school-based services such as occupational, physical and speech-language therapy or mental health support counseling. Schools should review the needs of each child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and provide services even if virtual.
Immunizations and wellness exams
It is especially important for your child to be up-to-date on their immunizations, including the flu vaccine, during the pandemic. Routine childhood and adolescent immunizations can be given with COVID-19 vaccines or in the days before and after. Getting caught up will avoid outbreaks of other illnesses that threaten to keep your kids home more.
Behavioral health and emotional support
More than 140,000 children have experienced the death of a primary or secondary caregiver during the COVID-19 pandemic, with children of color disproportionately impacted.
Your child's school should be prepared to support a wide range of mental health needs during the pandemic. This includes recognizing signs of anxiety or distress. Students may be grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19, for example, or feeling the stress of lost family income. Schools also can help students with suicidal thoughts or behavior get needed support.
The personal impact of the pandemic on school teachers and staff also should be recognized.
Sporting events, practices, and other extracurricular activities may be limited in many areas. In schools that do offer sports and other physical activities, special safety steps should be considered.
Vision and hearing screening and oral health programs should continue in schools, when possible. These services help identify children in need of treatment as soon as possible so health issues don't interfere with learning.
As the pandemic continues, schools are able to provide free meals to all children, regardless of household income, through June 2022. Many students receive healthy meals through school meal programs. Check with your school district for more information. Schools should provide meal programs even if the school is closed or the student is sick and stays home from school.
Why safe, in-person school is so important
The benefits of in-person school are much greater than the risks in almost every way. Schools are safe, stimulating, and enriching places to be while parents or guardians are working.
Children and adolescents receive more than just academics. They also learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health and other support services. For many families, schools are where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet, and other vital services.
School closures were especially hard for children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and children who are Black, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native.
Families, schools, and communities can work together to help ensure students can safely remain physically together in school, where they need to be. This includes making sure everyone who is eligible gets the COVID-19 vaccine, influenza vaccine and other routine childhood and adolescent vaccines. It means wearing a face mask, staying home when we are sick and doing what we can to keep others safe around us. When everyone does their part, the whole community wins.