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Back when schools let out for summer vacation, it kind of seemed like the 2021 back-to-school season might feel mostly normal, didn’t it? Case rates were way down, children 12 and up were vaccine-eligible, and things just felt...calmer. But as the Delta variant has driven a new surge in cases in many parts of the country (and all over the world) this summer, everything about the return to school has gotten more confusing—and concerning.

The vast majority of kids are going to be back in school buildings come September. There’s a lot of evidence now that in-school transmission of Covid-19 tends to mirror community transmission rates; in other words, Covid-19 spread can and does happen in schools, but it doesn’t seem to happen in schools more than any other setting in a community. On top of that, we now know that preventative strategies like masking make a big difference in transmission (in schools as in other settings). Given that, what will school look like in the fall? How will our kids be kept safe, and what should we actually be worried about?

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What Parents Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines

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Here are the top issues on our minds:


To mask or not to mask? The CDC recently updated their mask guidance for schools, encouraging all students and teachers—regardless of vaccination status—to wear a mask indoors. This was a shift from their earlier guidance that only unvaccinated students and teachers needed to wear masks at school. While individual states and school districts are still likely to establish their own official rules, masking up in school makes good sense, especially while case counts are on the rise. (This is probably true even for vaccinated teens. And since we know teens love being told what to do, that should be easy, right?) Bottom line: Masks should be on your back-to-school shopping list...again. Here are some kid-sized ones we recommend.


When can kids under 12 get vaccinated? The FDA has asked vaccine manufacturers to provide four to six months of follow-up safety data on younger age groups before they’ll consider approving Covid-19 vaccines for children under 12. More data is good. More waiting is, of course, bad. Don’t expect to see any jabs in little arms until winter. Happy holidays?


Does distance really matter? The CDC says “at least three feet” of distance between students is ideal, but they also say it’s okay if this isn’t possible—and it won’t be in many classrooms and cafeterias. This isn’t super reassuring for a lot of parents. Here’s how we see it: We know by now that Covid-19 spreads through both up-close interactions and through tiny particles floating through the air. In other words, being three (or six, or ten) feet apart isn’t a guarantee of protection, even if you can pull it off. It’s definitely better if our kids aren’t sneezing on each other (this is always true, isn’t it?), but good ventilation and masks are just as important—if not more so—than any precise amount of distance between desks.


But what about lunch? So we’re prepared to send our kids to school in masks, but what about those crowded cafeterias? Kids (and teachers) have to eat. We expect to see schools doing what they can to make this as safe as possible, but the reality is it won’t be perfect. Some best practices include keeping students as distanced as possible given the available space, and keeping seating arrangements consistent so that in the event of a positive case, close contacts will be minimized. Your school leaders might have other creative ideas (or be open to yours!), so don’t be afraid to ask. It also might be worthwhile to choose a good water bottle with a straw, so your child can drink while keeping their mask at least partially on.


Will schools close and return to virtual learning at some point next year? We...hope not? Certainly, it’s still possible that individual classrooms will go virtual periodically due to a positive case, or that small groups of students will need to quarantine and learn from home for a couple weeks here and there. We hope these won’t cause major disruptions, and we wouldn’t expect to see widespread closures again. But as always, we’re not epidemiologists over here; we’re just parents reading the news.

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