Back to school: It’s almost time to return to the classroom – but is it safe?

Vaccines, masking and other pandemic protocols are crucial.

Note: Recommendations and procedures continue to evolve. Parents should check with with their local school districts for the most up-to-date information.

This article was updated after the July 15 announcement that Los Angeles County would re-instate its indoor masking guidance.

Update: On July 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking for public school staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status or virus transmission rates within their community.

With the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus continuing to spread, parents want to know if it’s safe to go back to school as several Southern California districts prepare to open in August.

The recent rise in COVID-19 cases prompted Los Angeles County officials to mandate that masks be worn in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status, beginning Saturday, July 17.

To ensure your child’s safety, your best bet is to vaccinate yourself and continue to follow recommended protocols, says Dr. Shangxin Yang, PhD, a pathologist at UCLA Health.

“Adults need the vaccine, not only to protect themselves, but also to protect their kids. If the adults are vaccinated, then the risk of transmission from adult to kid is unlikely,” Dr. Yang says.

Dr. Shangxin Yang, PhD

Can parents give their children COVID-19?

Dr. Yang notes studies have shown that the majority of children who contracted COVID-19 did so from parents, caregivers or other adults in their family.

This is important to consider when it comes to children returning to school. The rate of COVID-19 transmission from adult to child is much higher than from child to adult, thus, adults being vaccinated will play a significant role in preventing outbreaks in the classroom.

Do we still need masks in school?

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use in adults and adolescents ages 12 to 17. Until the vaccine is authorized for younger school-age children, both Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, MPH, co-chief infection prevention officer for UCLA Health, and Dr. Yang stress the importance of masking for students age 12 and younger.

“Those non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking, physical distancing and improved ventilation and screening for symptoms (checking people’s breathing and lungs) are going to continue to play an important role” in limiting the spread of the disease, Dr. de St. Maurice says.

“For elementary and middle school students, wearing the mask keeps the risk low, but vaccination really is the key,” Dr. Yang stated. “The combination of wearing masks and making sure eligible students are vaccinated will make schools much safer to attend this year than they were last year.”

On July 12, California officials announced a mask mandate for all K-12 schools. The state is leaving it up to individual school districts whether to ban from campus students who are unmasked and refuse to wear a face covering provided by the school.

On July 27, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking for public school staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status or virus transmission rates within their community.

When will younger children be able to get the vaccine?

Much of the enrollment for clinical trials to test the COVID-19 vaccine’s efficacy and safety for younger children has been completed. Dr. de St. Maurice says findings from those trials could be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by early fall.

“The good news is we know a lot more about COVID-19 now than we did last year at this time,” Dr. de St. Maurice says. “There are a lot of studies showing that we can open schools safely this year, even if there is an increase in overall cases, as long as we are practicing appropriate mitigation measures.”

Dr. de St. Maurice and Dr. Yang encourage parents to follow a checklist to ensure their children’s safety when returning to school.

  • Parents and other adults living with children should get vaccinated.
  • Instruct children to keep their masks on indoors.
  • Wash hands consistently.
  • Do not share food.

What can the schools do to keep children safe?

Schools also have a responsibility to help to ensure student safety during the pandemic, Dr. Yang says.

“Reducing class size is an effective approach to lowering the risk,” he says. “Fewer people in the classroom at one time reduces the risk.”

Dr. de St. Maurice shares similar insights, but said she understands there are limitations.

"Classroom sizes are limited by that 3-foot distance rule that they're recommending now because schools just aren't that big," she says. "The more people that are crowded together, the more likely the chances are for an outbreak, but if you can have people spread apart with good ventilation then maybe the total number doesn't matter as much."

Dr de St. Maurice also said that some situations may depend on the children. For instance, if there is a child that is compromised or has complex medical problems, then that student can be placed in a setting where more physical distancing is possible and masking is enforced. 

Ultimately, however, vaccination will be the gold standard for safe return to school, and to normal daily activities.

Can students play with each other?

Though students should take appropriate precautions while in school, Dr. Yang says it is important for them to interact with each other over the course of the school day.

“Absolutely, kids should interact with each other during sports and games because it is essential for mental and physical health,” Dr. Yang says. “Games like tag are fine because COVID is not transmitted by contact, but mainly through respiratory droplets or airborne. However, if kids gather in a circle and take their masks off, then they have an elevated chance of catching COVID if one of them is infected.

“But if they are outdoors and are wearing a mask, they can engage in almost any sport.”

If you have questions or concerns about the safety of your child returning to school, contact your primary health physician or visit our COVID-19 information page.


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