Staying COVID-19 Prepared as Kids Head Back to School

Staying COVID-19 Prepared as Kids Head Back to School

As parents prepare to send their kids back to school this fall, concerns about COVID-19 in the classroom remain. With some safety precautions, you can help your kids navigate the new school year while keeping them protected. Donna Tyungu, M.D., Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health pediatric infectious diseases specialist, answers some frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and kids attending school.

Is COVID-19 something we should still be concerned about?
We all want to be done with COVID-19, but unfortunately, this virus has proven that it isn't yet done with us. COVID-19 is now more transmissible with increased immune escape, which means that our children have a good chance of encountering COVID-19 at school. Walking back into school may feel daunting for some, but fortunately, we are in a much better place to protect our children this year.

What is the single most important piece of advice you can give parents as they prepare to send their kids off to school this fall?
Vaccines are available for every school-aged child, and layering protection with masking (one of the easiest ways to avoid transmission), and vaccination can help keep our kids healthy, especially during the first few weeks back into the classroom. Also, handwashing remains essential, and attaching a little sanitizer to your child's backpack won't hurt. Finally, keeping an eye out for symptoms and keep sick children home.

What if parents are unsure about vaccinating their kids?
Families should speak with their doctors and specifically ask if they have vaccinated their own kids. The majority of physicians I know have already had their children immunized or had them enrolled in a trial for immunization. I love my munchkin more than anything on this planet, and I understand the risk that Sars-Cov-2 poses for him. He is fully vaccinated and still wears his mask in indoor settings.

Unfortunately, social media has posed a serious problem for the medical community. Many families I work with accept my medical advice, but overcoming social media misinformation regarding vaccination in one office visit is incredibly challenging. Our vaccines are not perfect, but they are safe and effective at preventing hospitalization, death, and post-COVID syndromes like multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children.

Under what conditions should kids wear masks?
Masking remains the simplest tool to help prevent COVID-19 infection and spread. Opt for well-fitting, high-quality masks. Children should probably wear masks at the start of the school year, especially if we still have cases rising across the country. We should pay close attention to the spread and impact of the virus in our local communities. We all need to get into the mindset that masking may become necessary sometimes during the year and not at others.

Children should wear masks:

  • If they have an immuno-compromising illness
  • If they feel sick and are waiting to be tested
  • If they are in crowded indoor spaces like a packed gymnasium
  • If requested by school leaders and/or public health authorities

What about other childhood vaccinations? Are we still neglecting them because of COVID-19 or are we beginning to catch up?
Unfortunately, COVID-19 and lockdowns early on in the pandemic got us behind on childhood vaccinations. We have slowly started catching up, but my concern is for the families who were previously vaccinating their children that have chosen to no longer vaccinate due to the concerns they have regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. If we lose herd immunity for other preventable diseases, those who are unvaccinated will be vulnerable.

The UN recently released a global 'red alert' for children's health due to the largest sustained drop in childhood vaccinations in a decade. We are a global society — if parts of the world have declining vaccination rates, those infections that could have otherwise been prevented can easily make their way into the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has made completing the childhood vaccination series even more important.

Should things be ‘back to normal’ in schools this fall, barring the emergence of new variants or other surprises?
Unfortunately, we are experiencing a COVID-19 surge right now from a new variant, BA.5. Behind that, there is another new variant, BA 2.75. I hope we will get back to normal soon. With the virus continuing to change, it is prudent to do our best to prevent infections to keep our kiddos in school as many days as possible.

As you send your kids back to school this fall keep abreast of COVID-19 strategies and information by monitoring the CDC guidelines. Vaccinations and masking remain the best form of protection and your physician can provide you with more information.