Keeping Kids Safe at School During COVID-19

As schools continue to plan for potential coronavirus surges, the CDC shares its guidelines for students and staff. Here's the breakdown.

Parents usually breathe a sigh of relief when their children head back to school. But COVID-19 continues to bring new emotions, such as fear, hesitation, and anxiety. After the struggles and failures associated with remote learning during the pandemic, by the start of the 2021–2022 school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) focus was paving the way for students to safely return to in-person schooling.

But with the new school year and the rise of new variants came an increase in coronavirus cases across the country. In December 2021, pediatric transmission and hospitalizations reached a record high, which was especially concerning because those under 5 weren't yet eligible for vaccination.

Adding to the stress, many schools didn't have reliable procedures for testing and quarantining, and some districts were lifting mask mandates despite recommendations from the CDC. Many parents and teachers were left fearful of large-scale outbreaks, which, of course, also led to concerns about child care if schools closed down again.

During outbreaks of COVID-19, school districts did take steps to decrease transmission. Take New York City, where preventative measures in schools included the use of face masks for students and staff, regular completion of health screening forms, and vaccine recommendations. New York City schools also provided free at-home test kits to students with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as anyone in a classroom where a positive case was identified.

However, at-home COVID-19 tests aren't always accurate, especially when it comes to asymptomatic and presymptomatic infections. Also, by the time a child gets a positive result, they might've already spread the illness to their peers. New York City schools decided they would not close unless there was "widespread transmission"—and this guidance was and continues to be common throughout the U.S.

As the country continues to face COVID-19, school leaders and parents can stay updated on how to protect their kids during in-person learning. Keep reading for the latest recommendations from the CDC.

1. Students and Staff Should Wear Masks Inside

Although indoor masking is no longer required in most places, the CDC continues to officially recommend that all students over 2 years old, staff, teachers, and school visitors wear face masks indoors in areas where the COVID-19 community level is classified as "high," regardless of their vaccination status.

Masks generally aren't needed outside, since the risk of transmission is much lower; however, people who aren't fully vaccinated can wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during outdoor activities involving close contact, such as sports. The mask guidance also applies to school buses.

2. Everyone Should Get Vaccinated When Eligible

The CDC recommends that all eligible students, teachers, staff, and household members get vaccinated against COVID-19. All people ages 5 and up are now eligible for vaccination and at least one booster dose. The CDC says that staying up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines is the best way to protect yourself against severe illness, hospitalization, and even death from COVID-19.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use in children. Adults can use any of the three vaccines, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, or Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, which can help prevent severe illness and hospitalization against COVID-19. However, the CDC does recommend that the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines be used over Johnson & Johnson when possible.

According to the CDC, schools should also combat vaccine hesitancy by providing information, encouraging vaccine confidence, and establishing supportive practices for easy vaccination. Also, they should consider that experiences differ between groups and communities, and adjust their messages as needed.

3. Schools Should Promote Social Distancing

Many districts implemented hybrid learning schedules during the pandemic because of the 6-foot social distancing recommendation. They simply didn't have enough space in classrooms for all the kids to attend and stay that far apart.

At the start of the 2021–2022 school year, the recommended distance was changed to just 3 feet, and the CDC maintained that the importance of offering in-person learning to all students outweighed the importance of implementing all of the recommended prevention strategies, including distancing. When the recommended distance isn't possible, the CDC emphasizes the importance of continuing to use other layered prevention strategies.

Schools can also try cohorting, which means dividing students and staff into small groups and keeping the groups together throughout the day. According to the CDC, "Cohorting can be used to limit the number of students, teachers, and staff who come in contact with each other, especially when it is challenging to maintain physical distancing, such as among young children, and particularly in areas of moderate-to-high transmission levels."

teacher wipes down school tables in classroom
izusek/Getty Images

4. Schools Should Consider Regular COVID-19 Screening

The CDC has updated its screening recommendations by community transmission risk level, as well as state and local guidance. For instance, the CDC notes that screening testing may be "most valuable in areas with substantial or high community transmission levels, in areas with low vaccination coverage, and in schools where other prevention strategies are not implemented." Screening, according to the CDC, can help schools and local areas more effectively identify cases that could indicate an outbreak and guide future decision-making.

Any schools that decide to implement a screening program should do so in a way that maintains privacy and parental consent must be given for children's participation. Regulations for screening may vary based on state, region, and school district. Other factors may also influence screening guidelines including community transmission, vaccination levels, and more.

5. Students and Staff Should Follow Quarantine Requirements

Your child's school should help you determine the necessary quarantine requirements after coronavirus exposure or a positive test. The latest quarantine and isolation guidance from the CDC recommends that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 isolate for five days, then wear a mask for an additional five days if they don't have symptoms or their symptoms are resolving, regardless of vaccination status.

The recommendations for quarantining after exposure to COVID-19 vary based on whether you develop symptoms and whether or not you are up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines.

6. Schools Should Implement Other COVID-19 Prevention Strategies

Schools should also continue to adhere to other precautions to prevent COVID-19 spread. These include:

  • Improving ventilation to limit viral particles in the air (opening windows and doors, upgrading air filtration systems, etc.)
  • Encouraging proper hand-washing and respiratory etiquette
  • Staying home when sick
  • Getting tested if you feel sick
  • Cleaning and disinfecting regularly
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