(Trends Wide) — Our children are falling ill with coronavirus. Covid-19 infections in the United States have increased exponentially, with nearly 500,000 new cases in the past two weeks, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This represents a 240% increase from the beginning of July.
Children now make up 29% of new cases nationwide. Many of the new infections correspond to children under 12 years old, too young to be vaccinated at this time.
All of this is happening at a time when schools are reverting to face-to-face teaching across the country. Many parents wonder: are schools safe? What happens if the public health precautions prescribed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are not followed? Should parents be able to take their children out of school, or are there other methods to help reduce the risk?
To answer these questions, we spoke with Trends Wide Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency room physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. She is also the author of a new book, “Lifelines: A Physician’s Path in the Fight for Public Health,” and is the mother of two young children.
Trends Wide: We’ve talked about this before, but here we are at the beginning of another school year during the pandemic. With the reopening of schools, do you think face-to-face classes are safe from a covid-19 perspective?
Dr. Leana Wen: Numerous studies have shown that schools may have a lower risk of coronavirus transmission than the surrounding community if they follow public health guidelines to use a “layered mitigation strategy.” Think of this layering method of layering like wearing layers of clothing in winter. When it’s cold, we need several layers to keep us warm. If we remove one layer, we have to add others. When it’s really cold, we need even more layers. They all work together, and the more layers, the more heat.
Let’s consider the different layers that can help keep schools safe. One of them is that all people with the right to be vaccinated are. That is, parents, teachers, staff, and all teens over the age of 12. The regions of the country that have higher vaccination rates also have lower infection rates among children.
Another layer is that of evidence. The CDC recommends that unvaccinated children be tested at least once a week in areas with significant or high transmission. The tests themselves do not prevent an infection from occurring, but they do detect it and, if done frequently enough, they prevent that infected person from going to public settings where they could infect others. The second-largest school district in the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District, requires weekly testing of all students and teachers.
Improving ventilation also helps, as does wearing indoor masks, keeping children in cohorts, hand washing, making sure children with symptoms stay home, contact tracing, and other key measures. public health. The more widespread covid-19 is in your community, the more measures the school will need to prevent transmission within it.
Trends Wide: What should parents do if their child’s school is in an area with high transmission of the virus, but where many of these measures are not applied? Many school districts are prohibited from even requiring masks.
Wen: This is difficult for parents, students and teachers in these circumstances. They know what needs to be done to make schools safer, and having these tools taken away from them is, in my opinion, inconceivable.
That said, parents are not helpless in this case. One of the things I strongly urge is that you talk to other parents at your child’s school. Union make force. Can you try talking to management together to express your concerns? Remember the concept of layered protection. If the requirement to wear a mask is not possible for any reason, can other measures be taken? For example, can the school offer weekly or biweekly tests to all students?
I would also suggest talking to other parents in your child’s class. If enough parents are of the same opinion, they can join in and insist that their children wear a mask when they are indoors. You can make wearing masks the norm in your child’s classroom.
You might consider talking with the teacher to see if all the children wearing masks can sit together. That also helps reduce the risk to your children.
Remember also that the quality of the mask your child uses is really important. A simple cloth mask may not be enough, especially with the more contagious delta variant that is dominating at the moment. A three-layer surgical mask will be more effective than a cloth mask. If your child is comfortable with an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask, they will provide even more protection. However, the best mask is one that your child can consistently and comfortably tolerate.
Trends Wide: At what point should parents be concerned enough to take their children out of school?
Wen: There is no one-size-fits-all answer. I would encourage parents to think about the health of their child and their home, the alternatives available, the importance of face-to-face education for their child, and what other risks can be reduced. There may also be local, state, or national laws that require your child to go to school in person, and virtual or home instruction is not possible. Be sure to check the laws or regulations in your area.
First, consider the health of your children and that of other family members. If your children are in good general health and everyone who lives with you is fully vaccinated, it could be viewed differently than if your children are immunosuppressed or have a particularly vulnerable family member. Of course, if your children are 12 or older, vaccinating them will be crucial to protect them and the rest of the family as well.
Second, what are the alternatives? For many parents, face-to-face schooling is essential because they have to work. It is also possible that there are no other options. Virtual learning is not offered in all schools, and many parents may not have the option of transferring their child to a school that offers more safety precautions.
Third, many children have really suffered without face-to-face teaching. Face-to-face school may be necessary for the emotional health of the child, as well as for his continued development.
If it is really crucial that their children are in school, they should see what other risks can be reduced. Yes, it is true that removing the child from school can reduce risk, but that should be the last resort. Especially since school is essential for many parents and children, they should see what other risks they can try to reduce instead.
Remember that risk is cumulative. If your unvaccinated child needs to go to school, work to reduce the risk in other ways. That they do not participate in the indoor games; instead, do them all outdoors. Do not let your guard down with extracurricular activities: you should take the same precautions that you would take during school. Don’t have sleepovers or pizza parties indoors – it would be a shame to be so careful during school hours that your kids get infected during after-school social activities. And parents can reduce their risk and, for example, always wear masks indoors when around people of unknown vaccination status.
Trends Wide: Is there any other measure that you would encourage parents to take to reduce risk in schools?
Wen: One of the most risky scenarios during school hours is lunchtime, when children are not wearing masks and can be crowded together. Ask what provisions your school can offer during lunch and snack time. Could the children eat outside? Could it be an option for some children?
I’d also ask about quarantine protocols. How will you know if another child tests positive? Is it necessary for all children in the class to be quarantined, or is testing an option that can reduce the need for a lengthy quarantine and thus a lengthy time out of school? Here’s another case where rapid and frequent testing is helpful: What kinds of testing options are made available to students and their families?
Trends Wide: What about 10- and 11-year-olds who aren’t old enough to get vaccinated? Should parents try to sneak them in line to get the vaccine or should they wait?
Wen: The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration have advised that parents not vaccinate children who are too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Studies are still being done for young children. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb estimates that, at best, vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 could be licensed in time for Halloween. That is not that far in the future.
It is best to wait until you have the data to confirm that the vaccine is safe and effective in this younger age group. Keep in mind that the dose being tested in this group is lower than that given to children 12 years and older, so that’s another reason to wait.
In the meantime, parents and children should take extra precautions, knowing that this is a particularly dangerous time for children during the pandemic, but that there are steps we can all take to reduce the risk to children, while keeping them within the range. school in person.