What to Know About Schools Reopening During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Healthcare News

What to Know About Schools Reopening During the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19
Angela Dunn, MD, MPH
By Angela Dunn, MD, MPH
Apr 21, 2021 - Updated Aug 16, 2021
Little girl using hand sanitizer in class

Key takeaways:

  • Reopening schools safely relies on having limited COVID-19 spread in the community.
  • The CDC recommends universal masking and distancing as key measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.
  • It is possible that some middle school and all high school students could have access to the COVID-19 vaccine before fall 2021.
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President Joe Biden and the White House COVID-19 Task Force have prioritized reopening schools safely. But sending our children back to in-person learning can be difficult to wrap our heads around. After all, some kids have been learning at home for over a year!

However, during this past year, scientists have learned a lot about COVID-19 — how it spreads, the impact on children, and how to prevent infections. We also now have highly effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Even with all of these advances in COVID-19 knowledge and science, sending a child back to the classroom can still be daunting. Here’s what you need to know about how schools are opening back up.

Can children get sick from COVID-19?

We have learned a great deal about COVID-19 over the past year, especially how it affects children. Fortunately, most children who get COVID-19 have mild symptoms and get better on their own. However, some children develop severe COVID-19 and need to be hospitalized. Although rare, COVID-19 can cause a child’s death.

Children at higher risk for severe COVID-19 have certain underlying medical conditions, such as congenital heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Because there is still a chance for children to get really sick with COVID-19, we need to do everything we can to make sure in-person learning is safe.

Can kids contract and spread COVID-19 in schools?

There have been fewer children infected with COVID-19 than adults. But just like adults, children can get COVID-19 and spread it to others even if they don’t have symptoms. Studies have shown that high school students are more likely to have COVID-19 than elementary school students.

Public health officials are keeping a close watch on the COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7. There is evidence that this variant spreads more easily and may cause more severe illness. The good news, however, is that the same prevention measures work against B.1.1.7, such as masks, distancing, washing hands, and staying home when sick.

How do I know it’s safe to send my child back to in-person school?

Before sending your child back to school, it is important to understand how COVID-19 is spreading in your community. The more spread in the community, the higher risk of COVID-19 spread in schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rates community COVID-19 spread — also known as transmission — by the number of new cases and the percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive. Counties are placed into a community transmission category — low, moderate, substantial, or high. You can visit the CDC COVID-19 websites to see how your community is doing.

In the next section, we will talk about how these transmission categories relate to recommended COVID-19 prevention measures in schools.

Will face masks or other precautions be required when kids return to school?

The CDC recommends COVID-19 prevention measures based on the community transmission level — low, moderate, substantial, high — and the students’ ages. Universal masking is recommended for all transmission levels and age groups.

While the CDC makes recommendations for keeping students safe at schools, states have their own laws that determine what is required for schools, and who makes those requirements. Your child’s school will likely be your best source of information on COVID-19-related requirements.

The CDC’s recommendations for elementary, middle, and high schools are as follows:

Elementary schools

Low and moderate community transmission

  • Universal masking
  • At least 3 feet between students in the classrooms

Substantial and high community transmission

  • Universal masking
  • At least 3 feet between students in the classrooms
  • When possible, creating small groups of students (cohorts) and keeping them more than 6 feet apart all day

Middle and high schools

Low and moderate community transmission

  • Universal masking
  • At least 3 feet between students in the classrooms

Substantial community transmission

  • Universal masking
  • At least 3 feet between students in the classrooms
  • When possible, creating cohorts and keeping them more than 6 feet apart all day

High community transmission

  • Universal masking
  • At least 3 feet between students in the classrooms
  • When possible, creating cohorts and keeping them more than 6 feet apart all day OR
  • At least 6 feet distance between students in the classrooms, if cohorting is not possible

Do kids need to be vaccinated before attending school?

Whether or not the COVID-19 vaccine is required for your child to attend school is up to your state. This is true for all school-required vaccines.

Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine approved for 16- and 17- year-olds. And they recently announced its effectiveness among 12- to 15-year-olds. The company is now seeking FDA approval to use their COVID-19 vaccine among this age group, which could take several weeks to a couple of months.

It’s possible that high school and some middle school students will be able to get vaccinated before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines among younger children are underway. However, younger children likely won’t have access to a COVID-19 vaccine until later in the year.

In-person learning can still be a safe environment even without children being vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccination is just one tool — though a very effective tool — to fight the spread of COVID-19. Educators and school staff can get vaccinated now, and we know masks and distancing prevent spread as well. As long as we continue to use all of the tools we have, we can keep kids learning in-person safely.

Can I send my child to school if they have COVID-19 symptoms?

In addition to the CDC’s recommendations for universal masking, distancing, and cohorting in schools, you can also take steps to keep your child and their classmates safe. Making sure your child is healthy, and keeping them home when they aren’t, will help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Check your child for symptoms, such as a fever and sore throat, every day. If they have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider to discuss testing and other care options.

If your child tests positive for COVID-19, they can return to in-person learning after:

  • It has been at least 10 days since symptoms started.
  • Overall symptoms have improved.
  • The child has no fever for at least 24 hours (without fever-reducing medication)
    These are the minimum requirements for returning to in-person learning after testing positive for COVID-19. Your local health department and school may have additional criteria.

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What could prevent schools from reopening soon?

As more people get the COVID-19 vaccine, the closer we get to herd immunity and the end of the pandemic. However, we are seeing spread of the COVID-19 variants. These variants spread more easily and could cause a quick increase in the number of cases — the so-called “fourth wave.” If the surge causes more spread in schools, public health officials will need to evaluate if in-person learning is safe or not.

The COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the variants. So we are in a race to get more people vaccinated before another surge takes hold. Right now, we can safely return to in-person learning by following the CDC’s reopening recommendations.

Are any schools already reopening?

States have developed and implemented their own plans for returning to in-person learning. Some states require communities to meet certain metrics before allowing for in-person learning, such as Hawaii and Delaware. The governors of Massachusetts and Washington require elementary schools to be open. Florida, Iowa, and Texas — among other states — require all charter and public schools to offer in-person learning.

The bottom line

Kids can return to in-person learning safely. Relying on prevention measures such as masking, distancing, and staying home when sick will limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and continuing to drive cases down in the community will keep cases low in the classrooms.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for children ages 16 and 17 years, and is undergoing FDA review for 12- to 15-year-olds. Some students may have access to the vaccine before the next school year begins in the fall.


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Angela Dunn, MD, MPH

Angela Dunn, MD, MPH

Angela Dunn, MD, MPH, is a public health physician practicing in Utah, with a focus on serving under-resourced communities. Dr. Dunn served as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she was involved in several infectious disease outbreak response and control efforts both in Utah and abroad. She is board-certified in general preventive medicine and public health, and completed her residency training at the University of California, San Diego. Prior to joining the CDC, Dr. Dunn worked as a primary care and public health physician in San Diego, focusing on women’s health, sexually transmitted diseases, refugee health, and tuberculosis.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

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