Here we are, more than a year-and-a-half into the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier in the summer, increasing vaccinations and decreasing cases gave us a reason to feel optimistic.
Then, things changed, just as we began approaching the start of a new school year.
Last year, families had to make the tough decision whether to allow their kids to go to school in person or keep them home for virtual classes. Many schools took the decision out of parents’ hands over the winter, when cases were the highest, switching to virtual school for everyone. While this protected students and teachers from spreading the virus, it led to increased stress and isolation for many kids.
We saw last year that students learn best when they can go to school. Staying home not only impacted school performance, it contributed to other issues, from depression/anxiety from isolation to worsening obesity due to increased snacking/grazing and decreased exercise.
The best thing for students will be to return to in-person school.
For that to happen, in the midst of another COVID-19 wave, we must figure out how to make schools safe for teachers, students and their families.
Luckily for adults and kids 12 and older, there’s an easy way they can protect themselves: getting vaccinated. Even with Delta variant cases spreading throughout our country, the vaccines still are quite effective at protecting against symptomatic cases (and breakthrough cases, when they happen, are typically milder). Almost 99% of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
The vaccines have been shown to be safe for adults and adolescents 12 and older, and hopefully the vaccines will be approved for younger school-aged kids in the next couple of months.
Not every student is going to be vaccinated, so other safety precautions are still needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that we all resume wearing masks in high-risk public areas. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that every student and teacher wear a mask when they return to school, regardless of vaccination status. This is important, because vaccinated patients who have tested positive for the Delta variant appear to spread the virus as easily as unvaccinated patients. Universal masking for students will also help prevent bullying or emotional distress that can occur if only unvaccinated students are required to wear masks.
Along with universal masking during school, we should continue the other preventive measures we’ve been following the past 18 months: physical distancing while indoors, frequent handwashing and screening/testing of students and teachers when appropriate. Students who have been exposed to the virus or are symptomatic should continue to quarantine as instructed.
By following these recommendations from the CDC and the AAP, and by continuing to encourage widespread vaccination, we can help students return to the enriching, stimulating environments in school, which so many kids missed last year.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.