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Safety tips for returning to school during COVID-19

Returning to school has taken on new meaning and a new set of worries for parents and other caregivers during the age of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Schools must now balance the educational, social and emotional needs of their students along with the health and safety of students and staff in the midst of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision on what school and learning looks like is usually made on the local level by school boards and government officials. Overall, schools largely choose from one of three options:

  • Distance learning. All instruction is done remotely in this model using technology and other tools.
  • In-person schooling. This model is similar to traditional schooling with enhanced health and safety precautions and procedures.
  • Hybrid schooling. This model includes elements of both distance and in-person schooling.

Schools may adopt one or more approaches during the course of the school year and pandemic. Being prepared for a variety of schooling environments can empower you and your child and reduce anxiety. In each case, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of COVID-19, help your child feel safe and make informed decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Get vaccinated

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 through 15. The FDA has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, now called Comirnaty, to prevent COVID-19 in people age 16 and older.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine requires two injections given 21 days apart. The second dose can be given up to six weeks after the first dose, if needed.

Research has shown that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus in children ages 12 through 15. Research shows that this vaccine is about 91% effective in preventing COVID-19 in children ages 5 through 11. The vaccine is 91% effective in preventing severe illness with COVID-19 in people age 16 and older.

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can also help keep your child in school and more safely have playdates and participate in sports and other group activities.

Your child is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Children ages 12 through 17 should also get a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine booster shot if they have been given both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and it’s been at least 5 months.

In the U.S., your fully vaccinated child also won't need to quarantine or get a COVID-19 test after a known exposure if he or she doesn't have symptoms, with some exceptions for specific settings.

If you or your child haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, there are many steps you can take to prevent yourselves from getting the COVID-19 virus and spreading it to others. These include:

Practice safe distancing

Social distancing, or physical distancing, is the practice of allowing enough space between individuals to reduce the spread of disease. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend keeping at least 6 feet (2 meters) of space between yourself and people outside your household when in indoor places to meet these goals.

But that might not be practical in some schools or with younger children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says following strict physical distancing can conflict with ideal academic, social and emotional learning standards. It's also not clear how easily COVID-19 spreads among children.

Steps to encourage social distancing during in-person schooling may include:

  • Eliminating lockers or grouping them by student groups, or cohorts
  • Creating one-way traffic in school hallways
  • Using outdoor spaces when possible for instruction, meals and recess
  • Reducing the number of children on school buses
  • Spacing desks out and having them all face in the same direction
  • Using physical barriers, such as plexiglass shields and partitions, to separate educators and students
  • Dividing students up into distinct groups or cohorts that stay together during the school day and reducing interaction between different groups

Weighing the risks and benefits of in-person schooling for children may mean different levels of social distancing based on the child's age and developmental stage. For example, the AAP recommends allowing interactive play for preschoolers while encouraging cohorting of students and face coverings for older children.

Wear a mask

Wear a face mask in indoor public spaces, such as schools, in some cases. If you're in an area with a high number of people with COVID-19 in the hospital and new COVID-19 cases, the CDC recommends wearing a well-fitted mask indoors in public, whether or not you're vaccinated.

If your child's school requires or encourages the use of face masks, consider these tips:

  • Wearing face masks should be a priority especially when it's hard to maintain social distance, such as on the bus, at carpool drop-off or pickup, and when entering the building.
  • Have multiple face masks available for your child. Provide your child with a clean mask and back-up mask each day and a clean, resealable bag for them to store the mask when they can't wear it, such as at lunch.
  • Label your child's mask clearly so it's not confused with another child's.
  • Practice properly putting on and taking off face masks with your child while avoiding touching the cloth portions.
  • Remind your child that they should clean their hands before and after touching their mask.
  • Instruct your child to never share or trade masks with others.
  • Talk to your child about the importance of wearing a face mask and model wearing them as a family.
  • Discuss with your child why some people may not be able to wear face masks for medical reasons.

Don't place a face mask on a child younger than age 2, a child who has any breathing problems, or a child who has a condition that would prevent him or her from being able to remove the mask without help.

Keep hands clean

Practice hand-washing at home with your child and explain why it's important to wash his or her hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before and after eating, coughing/sneezing, or adjusting a face mask. To prevent rushing, suggest washing hands for as long as it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. When hand-washing isn't available, suggest that your child use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Also, explain that he or she should avoid touching his or her eyes, nose, and mouth.

Schools should encourage routines that encourage frequent hand-washing and following good hand hygiene practices, such as asking children to cover their mouths and noses with their elbows or tissues when they cough or sneeze and then washing their hands.

If your child attends in-person schooling, develop daily routines before and after school that foster healthy habits, such as packing a back-up face mask and hand sanitizer in the morning and washing their hands as soon as they come home.

Clean and disinfect

Whether your child is being schooled at home or at school, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces can help reduce the risk of illness. This includes frequently touched items such as doorknobs, faucets, keyboards, tablets and phones.

Stay home if sick

You should monitor your child each day for signs of COVID-19. These include:

  • Fever
  • Nasal congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Poor appetite
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Belly pain
  • Pink eye

Some schools may recommend daily temperature readings as a part of COVID-19 symptom screening. But since many of these symptoms overlap with other conditions, such as the common cold, allergies and influenza, the effectiveness of this screening can be limited.

To limit the spread of COVID-19 as well as other germs, children should stay home from school and other activities if they have any signs of illness or a fever. Contact your doctor if you have questions.

Don't skip vaccinations

Whether classes are happening at school or at home, make sure your child is up to date with all recommended vaccines. All school-aged children should get a flu shot each season. Getting a flu vaccine is especially important this season because the flu and COVID-19 cause similar common signs and symptoms. Although the flu shot does not protect against COVID-19, it can reduce the risk of the flu and its complications. It's another layer of defense to help prevent missed school days.

What to do if your child is exposed to COVID-19

If your child will be attending in-person school, take steps to be prepared for possible exposure to COVID-19 and changing scenarios.

  • Develop a plan to protect family and household members who are at risk of severe illness, such as those with compromised immune systems or chronic conditions.
  • Make sure that your emergency contact information and school pickup and drop-off information is current at school. If that list includes anyone who is at risk of illness, consider adding an alternate contact.
  • Find out how your school will communicate with families when a positive case or exposure to someone with COVID-19 happens and how they plan to maintain student privacy.
  • Plan ahead for periods of quarantine or school closures. Schools may close if COVID-19 is spreading more in your community or if multiple children or staff test positive. Your child may also need to stay home if he or she is exposed to a close contact with COVID-19.

Following these steps can help you feel assured that your child is as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information on what measures your local schools are taking to reduce the risk of illness, check with your local school district or health agency.

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