With back-to-school season already on the horizon, many families are beginning to prepare for the first full in-person school year since 2019. Getting ready for a new school year already comes with a long list of “to-dos,” and in the midst of pandemic recovery, there are even more considerations to keep in mind. Perhaps one of the most important considerations is keeping your children COVID free as they return to classrooms. With the Delta variant growing in prevalence and intensity—across the world and in the U.S.—guidance from health officials has been somewhat conflicted on mask wearing and other precautions.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its recommendation that all children over 2 should wear masks at school—regardless of vaccination status. Earlier in the month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its own guidelines saying that all K-12 students should return to in-person learning, and that mask wearing is not required for vaccinated students. Both sets of guidelines stress the positive impact of in-person learning on students’ academic performance and mental health.
Although the recommendations differ a bit, they still provide families with needed guidance on having the healthiest school year possible. Of course, specific policies will vary by school district and location, so be sure to check local guidance for the most accurate information in your area.
Read on for everything parents need to know about the CDC and AAP recommendations for the upcoming school year.
Vaccination and Mask Guidelines for Students
At this time, all children over age 12 are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, so the CDC and AAP’s initial recommendations are that all eligible students, teachers, and staff get fully vaccinated prior to the beginning of the school year. The FDA still has not approved COVID-19 vaccinations for children under the age of 12, so masks will continue to be essential for elementary-age students. The CDC advises that masks be worn indoors for all students, teachers, and staff who are not vaccinated. Mask use may even be appropriate for those same groups in crowded outdoor settings (this includes P.E. and recess).
Remember that with masks, it may be difficult for students to breathe when exercising or participating in extracurricular activities like band or theatre. Those who are not vaccinated and do not wear a mask, even for a short amount of time, place themselves at higher risk for getting and spreading COVID-19.
For those who are vaccinated, the CDC advises that mask use is not needed at all. However, the AAP recommends that even vaccinated students continue wearing masks to keep students, teachers, and school staff safe. The AAP sees “universal masking” as a necessity since much of the K-12 population isn’t eligible for the vaccine yet, and masks are the next best preventative option for staying COVID free.
A Layered Approach to Reducing the Risk of COVID Transmission
The CDC and AAP are advising that schools should implement a layered approach to reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. In addition to vaccination and mask use, the CDC and AAP are encouraging schools to also maintain established prevention strategies including:
- Frequent testing for those who are not vaccinated
- Keeping a 3-foot distance for those who are vaccinated, and a 6-foot distance for those who are not vaccinated
- Improved ventilation through open windows or enhanced HVAC/filtration systems
- Hand washing, sanitizing, and covering coughs and sneezes
- Having those who experience COVID-19 symptoms and/or test positive stay at home
- Contact tracing for positive cases, in compliance with local and applicable laws
- Daily cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces
- Limiting access to school property and activities for nonessential visitors and service providers
- Staying in close contact with state and local public health authorities/medical experts
- Encouraging that children are up-to-date on all other vaccinations, like those that protect against flu, polio and chickenpox
Inclusive Strategies for School and Home
One result of the pandemic was the spotlight it placed on the disparities that many people experience in our country. Even without a pandemic, schools are one of the key places where disparity is seen the most, and for many families, the last year and a half made existing gaps even larger. As we return to in-person learning, keep this reality in mind and encourage your children to be mindful of it, too.
Some students may experience increased shyness, uncertainty, or academic insecurity because their families could not afford needed technology during virtual learning. Some students may have lost parents, siblings, or other family members during the pandemic and are still mourning. Some students may prefer virtual learning and are not looking forward to returning to the classroom. Some students might still be adjusting to masks, social distancing, and returning to public spaces in general.
The pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, and we have to remember that our children have been affected, too. For families who had children in school before the pandemic, don’t be surprised if your child’s academic behavior and patterns are different than they were before. For families starting school for the first time this year, easing into schools’ established guidelines may seem like a no-brainer, but be sure to be familiar with the guidelines and adhere to them as closely as possible.
Surviving a pandemic has forced a different type of resilience on us, and we should exhibit that same resilience when stepping into a new, somewhat familiar, but still kind of weird school year. It might not look like anything we’ve seen before, but we can still create safe environments where students thrive. As we enter a new year of learning, let’s be open, respectful, and mindful of people’s varying experiences!