Students are starting the new school year this month in a turbulent time with a fast-spreading coronavirus variant and fights about COVID-19 safety measures.
The Delta variant is increasing COVID-19 case rates and raising concerns among parents about whether their child will be safe at school. Meanwhile, some parents who don’t want to wear masks are working to discredit face coverings, which experts say are the most important measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, after vaccines.
Here are answers to some of the parents’ frequently asked questions about going back to school during COVID-19.
Q: Is it safe to send my kid to school?
A: As long as schools are doing all the right things, mainly enforcing universal masking and increasing ventilation in classrooms, students can be safe at school, said Josef Zwass, neonatal medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.
School districts that started the new school year last month have reported hundreds of COVID-19 cases in school. But most COVID-19 cases originate from outside the school, school officials say.
“The school is only as safe as the community. When community rates rise, we’re going to see more cases in school,” said Jaime Friedman, a pediatrician at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group and spokesperson for the local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Whatever parents can do now to help their communities be safer will help the schools be safer.”
There have been 72 outbreaks in K-12 schools, out of 1,789 total outbreaks in San Diego County since the pandemic began. That’s compared to 703 outbreaks in businesses and 337 in restaurants and bars. Outbreaks are when there are three probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period.
Q: When will kids under 12 be able to get vaccinated?
A: Pfizer expects to have trial data for an emergency use authorization of a vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 by the end of September, a Pfizer spokesperson told NPR in a story last week. Trial data for children under 5 will follow shortly after that.
Moderna is expecting to have data for authorization of a vaccine for children ages 6 to 11 by the end of the year. Currently, Moderna’s vaccine is only allowed for people 18 and up.
Q: How likely is it that kids will get COVID-19, spread COVID-19, or get hospitalized or die because of COVID-19?
A: Children are less likely to get seriously sick than adults, but the number of children getting COVID-19 has increased recently.
One reason is the Delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous versions of the coronavirus and has been increasing COVID-19 rates regardless of age or vaccination status.
Second, states have lifted the bulk of COVID-19 mitigation measures and people are more comfortable going out and having more potential COVID-19 exposure, Friedman noted. Schools are no longer closed. Lockdowns and mask mandates have been lifted, even in areas where vaccination rates are low, Friedman said.
Also, children under 12 years old are the only age group who can’t get vaccinated yet.
As of Aug. 17, the 7-day average case rate for San Diego County children 9 years old and under was 27.4 per 100,000 people, according to county COVID data collected and analyzed by data scientist Elizabeth Shulok of the group San Diegans for Safe Schools. That was lower than the 37.1 per 100,000 case rate for the overall county population.
The COVID-19 hospitalization rate for children 9 years old and under was 1.3 percent, and for children 10-19 it was 0.7 percent.
Q: Does my child have to wear a mask? Do masks work?
A: Yes, students in all public and private K-12 schools must wear masks while indoors, according to state rules. All school staff must also wear masks while indoors with students.
Studies have shown that masks are highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
A study released in June of more than 864,000 students attending in-person school last spring in North Carolina, where masks were mandatory, found that there were only 308 student cases where COVID-19 spread at school. There was a less than 1 percent chance of getting COVID-19 at school, the study found.
Another study of about 5,500 students and staff in rural Wisconsin schools found that, with required universal masking, COVID-19 rates were lower for schools than the community at large and only one in 20 cases found in school had been transmitted in school.
Q: Are masks unhealthy for kids? For example, will my kid get sick from bacteria in their mask, or do masks hurt kids’ well-being?
A: There is no evidence that masks make people sick or hurt children’s development, Friedman said. When she works with babies while wearing a mask, the babies can still see her smile behind her mask, and they smile back, she said.
Friedman has never seen or heard of a patient who got a bacterial infection from wearing a mask. She noted that everybody already has bacteria on their skin and in their mouth — bacteria that could theoretically get on the mask — but that bacteria doesn’t re-infect people.
Friedman said the biggest harm to children’s development is if they’re not around other children, and if wearing masks means they can be at school with their friends, then wearing masks is the much better choice.
Zwass and Friedman said there’s a simple solution to concerns about mask bacteria: use masks properly.
Only use disposable masks for a day, and wash then dry reusable masks after each day of use.
Q: What happens if someone tests positive for COVID-19 at my kid’s school? What happens if my kid tests positive?
A: Your child may have to quarantine if they become a close contact, which means they spent more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, indoors, within six feet of somebody who tests positive for COVID-19.
If your student is a close contact but has been vaccinated or has had COVID-19 within the past three months, they do not have to quarantine as long as they don’t show symptoms.
That’s why experts and educators are urging parents to get their kids vaccinated — not only because they provide protection against COVID-19, but because vaccination will reduce the number of time kids miss school due to quarantine.
If your child is not vaccinated, but both your child and the COVID-positive person were wearing masks, then your child can continue going to school in-person if they have no symptoms, undergo COVID-19 testing twice weekly for 10 days, and quarantine from extracurricular activities.
If your child is not vaccinated, is a close contact, and was not wearing a mask, or the person who tests positive was not wearing a mask, then your child must quarantine for at least seven days. If he or she takes a COVID-19 test after the fifth day of quarantine and tests negative, then they can go back to school after the seventh day. Otherwise, without testing, the student can go back to school after 10 days.
Q: What if I don’t want to send my kid to school?
A: All public schools are required this year to provide an at-home learning option for students, called independent study. Independent study can be virtual schools with live teacher instruction; others can look more like home school, where students work on assignments on their own and check-in with a teacher periodically.
Many school districts have deadlines for signing up for the independent study option. Once students sign up for independent study, they are generally expected to commit to that option for the entire school year.