Heading back to the classroom? Keep kids safe with these COVID-19 tips.

Northwestern Medicine
COVID-19 August 12, 2021
As kids head back to school, some parents may be nervous about keeping their child safe from COVID-19. A Northwestern Medicine pediatrician talks about why masking helps and how to reinforce safety measures that will keep kids healthy. 

Attribute to: Uma S. Levy, MD, pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital

Q: What does the most recent science and research say about safety for kids going back to school in-person?

A: Our children have lost so much during this pandemic and during remote learning in terms of interaction with peers, teachers, and other supports they would normally receive in school. Performance in reading and math declined universally in children during the 2020-2021 school year. For these reasons, a return to full-time in-person learning is now advised by all the major public health and medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). However, they are all advising a safe return to full-time in-person instruction with the proper safety protocols in place (including universal masking, vaccination for eligible children and adults ages 12+, improved ventilation and hygiene in schools, and social distancing when possible). If these protocols are enforced, I am confident that in-person school will be safe for our kids this year.

Q: Can you talk about the benefits of kids wearing masks during school?

A: Universal masking (masks for children and everyone else in the school building) keeps people safe because masks protect both the person wearing one and everyone around that person. A mask acts as source control for the person wearing it by containing respiratory droplets (which is the way SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses spread) and prevents the people around him or her from inhaling those droplets and potentially contracting the infection.

According to current CDC guidelines, if there is universal masking in school, even if there is an exposure to someone who has COVID-19, the child who is exposed will not need to quarantine as long as the children are at least 3 feet apart and are wearing well-fitting masks. This is huge in terms of reducing disruption in learning due to quarantines this coming school year.

Q: If kids are struggling with keeping their masks on, do you have any tips for how to encourage them to keep it on?

A: Children learn from example and are highly influenced by their parents, siblings, and peers. If they see their parents modeling proper mask-wearing behavior, they will follow suit. Masks are a minor inconvenience but as long as the adults around them don't make a big deal about wearing them, children won't either. Be sure to have your child practice wearing a mask whenever possible; this will make it a more natural behavior and less of a struggle. It's important that your child's mask is comfortable and well-fitting; the material is less important. Comfort will ensure that your child is compliant with wearing their mask. 100% cotton, 3-layer breathable fabric masks are adequate for filtering out most pathogens. A standard procedural or surgical mask worn under a cloth one offers even more protection (about as much as an N95 mask), if your child can tolerate that. There are also KF94 and KN95 masks manufactured in Korea and China respectively; these masks are also very effective. Disposable masks can be worn a few times before discarding; cloth masks should be washed and dried after each use.

Regardless, the best mask can be ineffective if your child isn't wearing it or isn't wearing it properly. You may need to try a few styles and sizes before you find a mask that your child likes. Fun patterns and colors may help make it more motivating to wear a mask, especially for a young child.

Q: What are some actionable tips that parents can use to help keep their kids safe?

Tip #1: Extra masks

Have your child keep extra masks in his or her backpack. Discuss with your child why he or she needs to wear a mask and keep it on indoors, using age-appropriate language ("You need to keep your mask on to keep you and the other kids safe"). One parent once told me that she described COVID-19 to her child as a "jumpy virus" that can quickly spread from one person to another; I think this is a great way of describing it. With older children, you can discuss how we all need to do our part to keep each other safe, especially those in our family who are older (like grandma and grandpa), those who may not have strong immune systems, and those who may be too young to get the vaccine.

Tip #2: Hand sanitizer

Have your child carry small hand sanitizers in his or her backpack and a separate one in his or her lunchbox. Remember to refill them as needed. Instruct your child to sanitize his or her hands frequently (before and after eating, before and after blowing their nose or touching their face, after using the bathroom, and whenever they feel they need to). If your child tends to bite his or her nails, now is the time to work on trying to curb that behavior, especially in school and out in public.

Tip #3: Stay home when sick

If your child is sick (with cold symptoms, stomach flu symptoms, and/ or fever, for example), please keep him or her home and talk to your pediatrician. Even if there is no suspicion that your child may have contracted COVID-19, it's important that whatever illness they have isn't spread to others in school. Even if you think it might be allergies and not an illness, it's best to troubleshoot with your pediatrician before deciding to send your child to school. We are here to help you!

Tip #4: Keep a safe distance

Again, talk to your kids about keeping their distance from others, keeping their masks on indoors (outdoor mask breaks are OK), wearing their masks properly, and washing/sanitizing their hands frequently.

I am hopeful that in-person learning will be safe for our kids this year, as long as we take the appropriate precautions. We can beat this pandemic if we all do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19. As a parent of school-age children myself, I can empathize with other parents about how difficult this past year and a half has been, both for us and for our kids. This pandemic has been a continuously evolving situation, and we need to continue to believe in the science, be flexible, and educate ourselves and our children about this virus, how it spreads, and how to stop it. Those who can get vaccinated should (immediately), and I am hopeful that the vaccine will be FDA-approved for school-aged children this fall as I'm hearing. Fortunately, we are still seeing that this virus tends to be milder in children than in older adults, but we cannot get complacent, especially with the tremendously contagious Delta variant currently circulating. We are truly all in this together, and we all must be as careful and as smart as possible in order to have a safe and healthy school year.

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