As the Covid-19 pandemic persists, and the Delta variant infects school age children much more prolifically than the original strain did, returning to school after the summer recess has suddenly become complex and confusing for parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Laws banning mask mandates fly in the face of CDC recommendations that all students wear them, and laws prohibiting remote learning, forcing schools to offer students only in-person instruction, raise questions and concerns about how safe our children will be if they must be returned to classrooms. After all, classrooms are settings with large numbers of people in a confined space, the very sort of setting the CDC often encourages people to avoid. What’s more, often most students in those classrooms are not wearing masks and cannot socially distance. In the face of this informational quagmire, I will attempt to bring some clarity to the issue of how students can be safely returned to classrooms. I will use CDC recommendations as my guide. These are only that–recommendations, and what I have to say will have my own opinions mixed in. It is my hope that after reading this discussion, parents in particular will have enough information to make informed decisions that are best for their children and their families.
The Delta variant has infected more vaccinated people than the first strain. Vaccinated people have not suffered severe symptoms or died from the Delta variant, but they have gotten sick; therefore, masks are recommended for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. People have reasons for resisting the wearing of masks, and several states have prohibited requiring masks. That said, the safest way for any child to be in a classroom with other children is to be wearing a mask. Children need and want safety, and they rely on their family first and foremost to provide it. Children don’t thrive when they feel unsafe. The best thing for any child as far as safety from Covid-19 is concerned is to wear a mask. I recognize that there are very good reasons why a parent may not want their child to wear a mask. For example, a child might have a medical condition that makes it unsafe for them to wear mask. My view is this: if my child had a medical reason for not wearing a mask, I would keep them home, providing homeschooling, or demanding that the school provide an acceptable alternative. Many schools have been forced to provide such alternatives for students who are now quarantined, even where remote learning for uninfected students had been banned.
There are instances in a school day when it is not possible to wear a mask. These include lunch, band practice, and perhaps recess and gym class, where breathing cannot be inhibited the way it is while wearing a mask. This is the first decision parents must make: if my child is going attend school with other children in a classroom, will I make certain they are going to school with a mask, and that they are wearing it wherever possible while in school?
The other critical factor, in addition to wearing a mask, is the distance that is maintained between students in a classroom. We are probably familiar with the social distancing standard of six feet. More specifically, the CDC says that students who are within 6 feet (2 meters) of an unmasked infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period are considered to have been in close contact. If everyone in the classroom is masked, that shortens to within 3 feet. There are few classrooms of 20-30 children that can be arranged so that everyone is at least 6 feet apart, so in a typical classroom, everyone if not most, are in close contact with each other and therefore at risk for becoming infected from another student. With this being so, I think it would be helpful if schools had the capacity to do frequent Covid testing, and that parents consented to having their children tested regularly and often. This would be a good use of some of that federal Covid money that school districts were given to aid in getting students back to school. Whether schools are conducting Covid tests or not the second decision parents must make is, will I have my child vaccinated with the Covid-19 vaccine, now that it is approved for children 12 years and older? Even though there have been a number of cross over infections, the infection rate and the severity of symptoms if infected is much lower for vaccinated than unvaccinated people. In fact, much of the current spread of the Delta variation has come from unvaccinated people under the age of 30. So anyone is safer from the Covid-19 virus if they are vaccinated.
If a student tests positive, but shows no symptoms, they still must quarantine. Just because one infected students has no symptoms doesn’t mean that another child who becomes infected won’t. Children who become infected at school can then bring the virus home with them and infect other family members, some of them elderly, who would be at a much higher risk of severe symptoms, or even death. A positive Covid test must be taken seriously and acted upon immediately with quarantine. The other piece to this is if an unvaccinated child has been in contact with an infected person, the CDC wants that unvaccinated contact to quarantine for 14 days. If the child who was in contact was vaccinated, quarantine is still prudent.
These are the facts and CDC recommendations concerning school and Covid-19. Most of what I have discussed comes down to parents making decisions on what they will or will not require their children to do, especially in terms of masking and getting vaccinated. It would be sensible for all parents to find out what their child’s school is doing to protect children from becoming infected. Have they reduced class sizes so that social distancing is possible? How are children handled who report to the nurse with symptoms that could be indicators of Covid-19? Are teachers wearing masks, especially when working with children in small groups or individually, or has small group and individual desk help been eliminated to maintain social distancing? Are extra-curricular activities being handled with the same precaution as in-school instruction? If volunteers are in the school for any reason, are they being required to wear a mask or keep socially distant? What about custodians, office staff, counselors and building administrators? These are some of the questions parents should be asking school officials. If the answers are unsatisfactory or vague, parents should become active in bringing about change to make our schools safer for our children.