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How will Delta, COVID-19 change this back to school season?

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GRAMPreparing children to go back to school each fall is stressful enough in a normal year, never mind in the midst of a pandemic. Between the most communicable Delta coronavirus variant, the surge in cases across the country, and the new masking guide from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), parents have a lot to navigate as they plan to have the schools reopen in August and September.

In general, experts seem to agree that it is time for children to go back to their classrooms. Remote learning put many children, especially students of color,back academically, It isolated them from essential social services, like free or reduced-price meals, and had a major impact on their mental health. Since many districts have cut back on distance education programs, even the most reluctant parents may have no choice but to send their children back to school, unless they have to homeschool.

The concern, of course, is that classroom learning could facilitate the continued spread of COVID-19. But on the bright side, a year of scientific progress means that schools can now be better equipped to prevent the spread of viruses in their classrooms, hallways, and locker rooms. Public health experts and school administrators now know that layered mitigation methods, including face masks, distancing, and ventilation, can help reduce transmission. In addition, children over 12 years old, as well as their teachers and parents, can be vaccinated, the best tool to avoid getting sick and reduce the spread of the virus.

To help parents of school-age children navigate the upcoming back-to-school season, TIME spoke with pediatric infectious disease experts about how to keep children – and those around them – safe this school year.

What risks does COVID-19 pose for my child?

It’s rare for COVID-19 to cause serious illness among school-age children, but it does happen. Those with underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, immune disorders, and diabetes, are at higher risk. according to to the CDC. About 400 children have died after contracting COVID-19 in the US, according to CDC data. Of course, while any death is tragic, that number represents only about 0.01% of children known to have tested positive for the disease. In other words, children are unlikely to suffer the worst impacts of the virus.

In fact, while children can also develop “prolonged COVID,” suffering persistent COVID-19 symptoms long after being infected, preliminary evidence suggests that the condition is much less common in children than in adults. TO to study by Swiss researchers published in JAMA July 15 found that only 4% percent of children surveyed who had tested positive for COVID-19 were still experiencing symptoms after 12 weeks.

That said, there is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19. Dr. Aaron Milstone, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, notes that some viral diseases, such as measles, can cause harm years after exposure in children, and we cannot know for sure if the COVID-19 won ‘It has no future consequences. “I think it is important to recognize that there are unknown risks, albeit small ones,” he says.

How has the Delta variant changed the risk of contracting COVID-19 at school?

The Delta variant is more transmissible than the version of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that circulated for much of the previous 16 months or so, meaning it could spread faster in schools, by just like it does. anywhere else. Although it does not appear to cause more serious disease (neither in children nor in adults), Dr. Sean O’Leary, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says he is concerned that children may be carriers of the virus. back home to vulnerable family members, or in the other direction, putting teachers and staff at risk. “I think it has the potential to be bad,” he says.

The appearance of Delta is a reminder that schools will need to remain flexible as the virus continues to circulate. Milstone notes that the dynamics of the pandemic are changing over time: Vaccine-generated immunity may decline over time, people with mixed vaccination status increasingly socialize with each other, and fewer people take precautions such as masking or distancing (although the new CDC guidance can help change that). “We have to keep up with the virus,” says Milstone.

The best preventive method, of course, is mass vaccination. And most of the evidence suggests that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only vaccine licensed in the US for children ages 12 to 15, is effective against the Delta variant. Vaccinations aside, schools can help protect students, teachers and staff by implementing “layered” prevention methods, including masks, distancing and ventilation, says Dr. William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. These efforts are especially important to protect students under the age of 12, who cannot yet get vaccinated.

Could my child bring COVID-19 to someone else, like family members or their teacher?

Children can transmit COVID-19 to others, although the risk of transmission tends to be higher in older children, says Dr Liz Whittaker, senior clinical professor of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Imperial College London. TO to study conducted in South Korea in the winter of 2020 involving 5,706 COVID-19 patients, it was found that children under the age of 9 were less likely to transmit the virus to other groups compared to children aged 10 to 19 , which seemed to pass it on as much as adults.

O’Leary says that widespread community vaccination is the best way to limit these risks. “What we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, even now with this Delta variant, is that [the number of] the cases in children basically reflect what is happening in the surrounding community, ”he says. “The most important thing in helping schools be successful this year is getting everyone vaccinated, up to age 12.” And, if schools practice layered mitigation methods, teachers should be at low risk of infection, O’Leary says, especially if they are vaccinated.

Parents can also take steps to help prevent outbreaks in schools. Whittaker urges families to keep their children at home if they seem unwell and consider having older children wear a mask even if they are not going to school, and even if they are vaccinated, to keep the people around them at ease. except. And don’t forget the basics, he adds. “Like washing your hands before eating, which we should do anyway,” he says.

Could schools trigger a COVID-19 outbreak in my community?

So far, schools have not been a major factor in the COVID-19 outbreaks. Rather, they are more likely to reflect the level of transmission that is already occurring in a given community.

For example, in an April study published in PediatricsResearchers studying North Carolina schools with 90,000 students and staff in person found only 32 local infections in schools over a nine-week period, while another 773 people were infected in other parts of the community. However, it is important to note that the schools studied for that document practiced mitigation strategies such as universal masking, 6-foot spacing, and symptom monitoring.

That said, Milstone notes that schools “tend to be more conservative” and take more precautions to limit viral spread compared to other institutions. In fact, schools are probably no more dangerous than other activities that many children are already doing, he says. “I would say that a child who is masked at school is less likely to bring [COVID-19] home from school than they’re about to bring him home from their Sunday school group or … a birthday party with 10 other kids where they’re probably not masked. “

How can I prepare to send my child back to school during the pandemic?

If your child is too young to get the vaccine, vaccinating yourself is one of the best ways to protect him from getting COVID-19, as it reduces the risk that you will pass the virus on to others. “If you are going to send a child to school, you absolutely must make sure you are vaccinated if the child is too young to be vaccinated,” says O’Leary.

O’Leary also tells parents to closely watch the mitigation measures their children’s school has in place, even if face masks are required, and advocate for more precautions. And regardless of school policy, it can be smart to talk to kids about wearing masks. In general, O’Leary says, children are “better than adults at wearing masks.”

And most importantly, if your kids are 12 or older and eligible, get them vaccinated and don’t wait. People are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their second Pfizer injection, which is generally scheduled three to four weeks after the first injection. That schedule means that you will need to go as soon as possible to make sure your child is protected on their first day of school.

Milstone acknowledges that his perspective is skewed as an infectious disease physician; With his career, he sees an unusual number of very sick children with COVID-19. Still, he says watching children die from a vaccine-preventable disease is very difficult.

“I’ve said this my entire career, right?” he says. “It’s really disheartening to see people die from vaccine-preventable diseases. And especially the children, who cannot make that decision for themselves. “

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