Child wearing protective mask in classroom setting As schools across the country begin a new, in-person school year, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) expert, Susan Coffin, MD, MPH, attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases, weighs in on how to help your child safely return to in-person learning.

What we’ve learned about schools and COVID-19

We’ve learned quite a bit about the SARS-COV-2 virus in the past year, including how in-person schooling may or may not impact community transmission of the disease.

Recent school-related findings suggest:

  • Community infection rates do NOT increase when schools reopen.
  • School attendance can “protect” against COVID-19, as we’ve witnessed in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, where public schools returned last fall without a spike in COVID-19 transmission rates.
  • Schools can operate safely even when the community viral transmission rate is high, as long as the school community is diligent about masking and other mitigation measures, especially vaccination when eligible.

Reminders for a safe return to school

No matter when your child returns to in-person schooling, they will need to follow certain rules to help control the spread of COVID-19. Measures being implemented at schools include:

  1. Requiring all students and staff to wear a face mask that covers both their nose and mouth, and is snug on the sides so there are no gaps.
  2. Expanded cleaning of all shared rooms and surfaces.
  3. Reminders and opportunities for frequent hand cleaning/sanitizing and respiratory etiquette (i.e., cover your cough or sneeze into a tissue or elbow, not your hands).
  4. Contact tracing, quarantine and isolation procedures ready to activate if any students or staff attending school in person are exposed or test positive for COVID-19.

Your frequently asked questions

Q: If an individual is exposed to a known case of COVID-19 in school, when should they be tested to see if they’ve been infected?

A: When to test depends on whether an individual has been vaccinated. A fully vaccinated individual should be tested 3-5 days after exposure or when symptomatic. An individual who has not been vaccinated should test 5-7 days after exposure. If the test that is obtained on day 7 post-exposure is negative, it is safe to resume school/activities. If no testing was performed, the CDC recommends 10 days of quarantine after exposure and before returning to in-person schooling or activities. Your local school district may require a longer period of quarantine, but generally not more than 14 days after exposure. 

You can get a COVID-19 test for your child by making an appointment at any one of CHOP's drive-thru/walk-through sites. The testing is quick and painless and no longer requires a deep swab to the back of the nose.

Q: Are the COVID-19 vaccines safe?

A: Yes! All COVID-19 vaccines have undergone rigorous testing before being approved by the FDA and have been safely received by hundreds of millions of Americans. You may experience some reactions from the vaccine; this is to be expected. Your immune system is responding to the spike protein in the vaccine. Most reactions occur within the first three days and may occur after the first or second shot – or both. The most common reactions after the vaccine for individuals younger than 55 include: fatigue, headache, muscle ache, fever, chills and arm pain. Reactions typically resolve in a few days. Also, remember that no COVID-19 vaccines are currently approved for use in children younger than age 12.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center.

Q: What’s the best mask and mask advice for kids?

A: The best mask is one that fits on your child’s face, covers both their nose and mouth and is snug on the sides so it doesn’t bunch up. You don’t need KN-95 masks, but cloth masks should include three or more layers. Make it fun! Let them pick the design – whether it’s superheroes, princesses or a cool pattern. And then get a bunch. Your child attending school will need multiples throughout the week to avoid laundry every night. Masks should be dry and clean. If it’s not, switch it out (safely, far from others). Virtually all kids, even toddlers, who are resistant to mask wearing can be gradually taught to wear them properly.

Pro Tip: Consider putting self-stick hooks by your front door with a little laundry bag or basket near it. Clean masks go on the hooks; dirty masks go in the laundry bag or basket right away!

Q: What about lunch at school? How close can kids be?

A: Whenever children take off their masks and are around others without masks, there’s a risk of COVID-19. But there are things we can do to reduce this risk. Parents and educators can help children prepare to eat at school by offering rules or guidelines, including:

  • Whenever possible, have lunch (and other unmasked activities) outside.
  • Try to sit at least six feet away from other students while eating.
  • Remove your mask only when actively eating or drinking.
  • When finished eating and drinking, put your mask back on – don’t walk around the cafeteria without a mask.
  • Remind your child that having their mask off for the entire lunch break isn’t necessary, and they will be safest if they put their mask back on when they are not eating or drinking. 

Parents can check in with school officials about how they plan to host lunch in school. Some schools have chosen to reduce risk by hosting lunch in larger spaces or in multiple locations (i.e., cafeteria, gym, auditorium). Other schools with limited space have chosen to install Plexiglass barriers between students, allowing them to sit a bit closer but still protected against droplets or aerosol-based viruses. 

Q: How can families comfort their kids who are scared of returning to school, scared of their own infection risk or worry about passing the virus to a loved one?

A: Many children can be supported by parents and siblings to help them better understand how our masks, handwashing and physical distancing keep us healthy. However, some children will be overwhelmed or truly fearful for themselves or others.

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior or mental health, talk to your child’s pediatrician as soon as possible. They may refer you to a therapist who is experienced in helping children and teens. The transition back to school may be hard for some kids so communication between parents, teachers and pediatricians is important to identify kids who are at-risk. 

Worth the challenge

Going back to school during a pandemic is challenging, but with the appropriate tools and resources, your child can return to learning with their peers – safely – and enjoy many of the social benefits of in-person education, extracurricular activities and more. 


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