As Schools Open, How Can We Protect Our Kids From Delta?

We have the tools to go back to school safely — it’s up to us to use them

Photo: Element5 Digital / Unsplash

I’ve tried to address some of the most common questions I’ve received from parents below. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and many questions don’t have easy answers, but we’re learning more every day.

How big of a risk does Covid pose to kids?

The good news is that most kids who get Covid will have mild or no symptoms. Evidence from multiple contact tracing studies, household transmission studies, and population exposure studies suggests that children are less susceptible to severe illness with Covid than adults.

To put the risk into perspective, CDC has reported 519 deaths among children under 18 in the U.S. — far too many, but a very small fraction of the more than 3.5 million reported cases among kids.

Although most kids do not get seriously ill from Covid, some do get very ill. Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), for example, is a very rare, but serious, complication of Covid in children.

Does the Delta variant make kids sicker?

The Delta variant has caused massive outbreaks across the world and now makes up at least 92% of sequenced cases in the U.S. (up from 7% just two months ago). Because it’s at least twice as transmissible, it’s a serious challenge to pandemic control.

But despite its increased transmissibility, there’s no evidence to date that Covid caused by the Delta variant causes more severe illness among kids. However, as with other variants, some children are becoming severely ill — and the more kids who get infected, the more who will require hospitalization and intensive care.

Can kids get long Covid?

Many people infected with Covid continue to suffer from debilitating symptoms after the acute illness. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this phenomenon, known as “long Covid,” including who is most susceptible to it and how we can treat it. Available evidence suggests that kids can get long Covid too, though possibly not as frequently as adults. We need better data on this.

Should my kid get vaccinated?

The risk of death and serious illness from Covid among children is very low, but it isn’t zero. That’s why if your kid is age 12 or above, it’s important they get vaccinated to protect themselves and the people around them. Vaccination is proven safe and effective for adolescents.

Kids younger than 12 aren’t able to get vaccinated now, but clinical trials for those ages 5–11 are ongoing and expected sometime in the fall or early next year.

I’m vaccinated, but my kid is too young to be vaccinated. Should I be more careful?

This week, CDC issued new guidance on masks, recommending that fully vaccinated people in areas with high Covid transmission mask up indoors. Vaccinated family members of unvaccinated kids, no matter where they are, may consider being even more cautious in their daily activities. That means also increasing ventilation, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding large gatherings.

Safety measures work inside the house too: a new study shows kids can spread Covid to people in their households, but — importantly — that safety measures of masks and physical distancing reduce this risk. This is especially relevant to unvaccinated adults who spend a lot of time around kids.

Should we really be opening schools during a new surge in cases?

In-person learning is essential, and there’s abundant evidence that schools can open safely if we do it carefully, using a layered approach. This week, the CDC released guidance for Covid prevention in K-12 schools, noting that safely returning to in-person instruction in fall 2021 is a priority.

Going to school improves the social, physical, and mental health of kids, and virtual learning is not a replacement. The disruption caused by the pandemic have cost millions of students precious school time and slowed or stalled their educational progress, worsening an already unequal system.

If schools use layered mitigation measures, it’s possible for them to open and stay open, particularly in communities where transmission is low. The best way we can set our students up for success this fall is by expanding vaccination and reducing spread in the community.

What can schools do to protect students, teachers, and staff?

It’s important that schools use all of the tools in our toolbox to protect students, teachers, and staff from Covid. That means following the “Swiss Cheese Model” of disease prevention and implementing several layers of safety.

It’s horrifying to see some states block safety measures, such as masks mandates, in schools. Can’t we agree that we should work together to protect our kids? Masks in schools are a route to the new, safer normal as long as Covid is spreading widely.

Following these measures can keep schools safe: vaccination, consistent and correct mask use, increased ventilation of indoor spaces, physical distancing of at least three feet, hand-washing, cleaning of school spaces, and quick action to find and stop spread from cases in schools.

Accommodations must be made for those students and staff with very serious underlying health conditions that suppress immune response or increase vulnerability (e.g., organ transplantation, cystic fibrosis).

What if a student tests positive?

Even with many layers of safety, it’s inevitable some cases will emerge. Anticipating this, school leaders must do their part to respond rapidly by encouraging students and staff to stay home when sick, ensuring testing to promptly identify cases, clusters, and outbreaks as they emerge, and conducting contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine as needed.

Protecting our kids

The best way to keep all kids safe from Covid is to get as many people as possible vaccinated, open schools carefully with layers of safety for our students, teachers, and staff, and reduce community spread of Covid.

President and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives | Former CDC Director and NYC Health Commissioner | Focused on saving lives. twitter.com/drtomfrieden