- Children are increasingly making up a larger proportion of COVID-19 cases in the United States.
- As the school year starts, we talked with experts about what parents can do to keep children safe from COVID-19, even if they’re too young to be vaccinated.
- Experts say keeping children at home in areas with high rates of COVID-19, in addition to masking and social distancing, can decrease the risk of getting COVID-19.
For much of the pandemic, young children seemed to be unlikely to develop COVID-19 compared with adults. But now, as the Delta variant has surged, it’s affecting many unvaccinated people — including children under 12 who are too young to be vaccinated.
Since the pandemic began, children have represented nearly 15 percent of total cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). But for the week ending August 26, children now make up 22.4 percent of reported weekly COVID-19 cases.
With school beginning, it raises more questions about how best to keep children, and those at risk, safe.
Although kids being hospitalized and experiencing severe cases of COVID-19 is relatively rare, it does happen. Kids with COVID-19 can still transmit the disease to a more at risk population.
And we are still not aware of the long-term effects of COVID-19 on children.
“Children can become very ill from COVID, and especially those with underlying health problems,” said Dr. Michael Grosso, the chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital.
“In addition to primary COVID infection, some children will go on to get MIS-C, a complicated illness that happens a few weeks down the road, which affects the heart, GI tract, and other systems,” Grosso added.
That has been the debate, and there’s no correct answer.
It truly is different for every family and their situation, depending on parents’ work schedules, access to childcare, COVID-19 cases in the community, and how prepared the schools are.
“What we’ve seen about reopening schools is that we can keep transmission down with a layered approach,” said Dr. Karen Acker, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine.
“There are multiple measures to implement. We should encourage kids to wear masks indoors and when playing with each other, only taking them off to eat,” she said. “We also should require all staff and teachers to be masked. I am a strong believer that the vaccine is the only thing [that’s] going to take us out of this pandemic, so I’m a big proponent of the vaccine for all teachers and staff.”
How a family decides to send kids to school is a family’s decision. Each family has to take an individual approach and determine what their acceptable level of risk is and what their priorities are.
“If you’re in an area of the country where transmission is not as high, I feel comfortable saying you should send your kids to school,” Acker said. “In other areas of the country, where vaccines are not as prevalent and mask mandates aren’t a guarantee, I think kids should stay at home.”
HealthyChildren.org, which is run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, came out with a list of measures that families and schools can take to keep institutions safe during the pandemic. Among the recommendations:
- face masks
- social distancing
- classroom routines
According to the organization, all adults and children ages 12 or older should get fully vaccinated prior to the school year.
“Until research and approval processes allow for the immunization of those under 12, elementary school children will remain unprotected and will depend on other approaches to staying safe,” Grosso said. “This includes the immunization of all individuals old enough to get a vaccine: students, teachers, and other staff.”
Everyone over 2 years old should wear face masks covering the nose and mouth when at school. Face masks are safe and effective to wear throughout the school day.
Students should remain at least 3 feet apart within the classroom when possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
To help limit student interaction, HealthyChildren.org suggests having teachers move between classrooms rather than students to keep large crowds out of the hallways.
Eating lunch at desks or in small groups outside — instead of in lunchrooms — is another suggestion.
The CDC recommends screening testing for students who have not been vaccinated yet, especially when there’s a higher rate of COVID-19 in the community.
Still, it all comes down to vaccinations, which continuously prove to be the best line of defense against COVID-19. Since children under 12 are not able to be vaccinated yet, it’s up to the rest of the community to protect them, which in turn protects everyone else.
“I will do whatever I can do to make people feel that vaccines are extremely safe and exactly what we need to protect ourselves to get us out of this pandemic,” Acker said. “Vaccines are the biggest public health strategy in terms of decreasing disease and keeping children safe. Be reassured that this is a safe measure and will protect you from what we know COVID can do.”