What parents need to know as kids return to school amid COVID-19 surge

·7-min read
 Jose Martinez and his sister Julissa stand with their mother Laura Gomez and father Felipe Martinez outside the John G. Whittier School in Long Beach, Calif., as school returns after winter break and a spike in positive COVID-19 cases.
Students return to school after winter break amid a spike in positive COVID-19 cases across the U.S. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The holiday break has either wrapped up or will shortly end for K-12 students across the United States. But it unfortunately coincides with a rapid spike in COVID-19 cases countrywide.

Data shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a nearly vertical jump in newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases. On Dec. 29, which is the most recent date data is available, there were a record-breaking 486,428 new COVID-19 cases diagnosed in the U.S. — and those numbers don't include people who have confirmed their diagnosis through home test kits.

The rapid spike in COVID-19 cases comes just after the holidays and a surge of the highly infectious Omicron variant, which is now responsible for 95.4 percent of U.S. cases, according to CDC data.

All of this has parents wondering how safe it is to send their children back to school — and what additional steps they can take to keep them protected while they're there. Here's what doctors and public health experts recommend.

Have your child wear the most protective — and comfortable — mask possible.

There has been a lot of talk lately about mask quality, with some experts saying that popular cloth masks aren't protective enough. New rules from the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health also mandate that school staff in the area wear surgical-grade or "upgraded" masks vs. cloth masks, while students are urged to wear "noncloth" masks as well.

However, the CDC still says that cloth face masks with two or more layers are acceptable forms of protection.

"High-quality masks are better than single-layer cloth masks," Dr. Thomas Giordano, professor and section chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.

But doctors stress that not all cloth masks are created equal. "If you have a triple-layer face mask with a filter insert, it can be protective," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. Even if your child's face mask has fewer layers, "a poor-quality mask is better than no mask," Russo adds.

Russo recommends seeing if your child will wear a higher-quality mask, like an N95, a KN95 or a KF94, first and taking things from there. "If you can't get those masks or they don't fit your child well, step it down," he says. The next best thing, Russo says, is a surgical mask, ideally with a cloth mask layered over the top to seal gaps. "You should set the bar high," he says. "The better quality mask you wear, the better off you'll be."

But Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that you need to make sure you find a mask that your child will wear — and wear properly — for the entire school day. "I'm in the category of 'any mask works as long as it's up over the nose,'" he says.

Testing your child is a good idea, if you have access to it.

Some schools and districts across the country, including Chicago Public Schools, are mandating that children test negative for COVID-19 before returning to class. But experts say this is tricky to pull off.

"Testing is highly desirable, but the logistics are very difficult," Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, professor and vice-chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. "In general, it's a good idea to test after you've been with family or others, or have traveled, as many people do over the holidays."

Schaffner says the idea of using testing to keep kids in class is "very complicated," pointing to a nationwide shortage of COVID-19 tests. "I cannot imagine we have enough tests to test every child in the U.S. once a week, twice a week or more. We are better focusing on getting all those children who are age 5 and older vaccinated."

Russo calls testing children to keep them in class "an interesting concept" but points out that it just tells their COVID-19 status at that point in time. "Just because your child tests negative doesn't mean they can't test positive a few hours later," he says. "It has to be packaged together with a mitigation plan like masking, good ventilation and good hygiene."

If you do decide to test your child and you have access to a test, Russo recommends doing it as close to when they go back to school as possible for the most up-to-date results.

Quarantining rules are confusing, but you need to defer to your local health department or school's policy.

On Dec. 27, the CDC announced new isolation and quarantine guidelines. The current guidelines offer slightly different recommendations for quarantining, based on whether a person is vaccinated or not.

People who have been vaccinated and had a booster shot, or who have been vaccinated but do not yet qualify for a booster shot, should do the following after a known COVID exposure, per the CDC:

  • Wear a mask around others for 10 days

  • Take a COVID-19 test on day five, if possible

People who are unvaccinated or who have not gotten a booster shot despite being eligible should:

  • Stay home for five days

  • Wear a mask around others for five additional days

  • Test on day five, if possible

If you're not able to quarantine, the CDC recommends wearing a mask for 10 days.

But the CDC's new recommendations are controversial, and not every school or local health department plans to follow them. When it comes to quarantining, Giordano says you really need to pay attention to your local policy. "Quarantine rules are up to the school districts," he says.

Russo agrees. "Every local health department and district is going to have specific guidance for quarantining, and you have to follow them," he says. "It's more important when people are unvaccinated and not wearing masks, but some schools don't take masks into account as a mitigating measure. There's a lot of variability here."

Deciding whether to send your child to in-person schooling right now is tricky.

Some school districts have temporarily gone remote amid the Omicron surge, but many are planning to resume in-person classes or already have. Kleinman says it's a "really difficult decision" but that families need to weigh their own circumstances and risks before making the call.

"From an infectious disease standpoint, it does make sense to not send your child to school at the moment," he says. "But it may not be the right thing for your individual circumstances." He recommends that parents consider things like the school building's ventilation, spacing in schools, mask-wearing policies, testing and local vaccination rates, along with the individual risks of family members and if your child's school even offers a temporary remote learning option.

"In general, I would love to see kids back in school, and I don't know a single educator who doesn't want kids back in school," Schaffner says. "But, if you're in an area where vaccination rates aren't high or masking isn't required in school, it's risky."

But Giordano says that your child's vaccination status matters. "I would send my children to school if they were vaccinated and boosted — if they're old enough — and if everyone in my household were vaccinated and boosted," he says. "If there were some very immunocompromised members of my household, even if vaccinated, I might consider waiting for the surge to calm down, but that is a very individual decision that families need to make."

Russo says that families shouldn't need to worry about this for long. "COVID-19 waves have generally been eight weeks up, eight weeks down," he says. "The hope is that Omicron will burn through quickly so that it will be curtailed."

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