This fall, millions of families across America are embarking on the most stressful back-to-school season since — well, last year.
It’s not that things aren’t different now. Most notably, we have vaccines available for people 12 and older that dramatically reduce the risk of death and serious illness from the virus. And while large numbers of students started last school year learning remotely, this fall nearly all districts are welcoming kids back to classrooms.
But a lot of things are, depressingly, the same. The virus is far from gone, with the delta variant driving surges in many parts of the country. And the lack of vaccines for kids under 12 means continued uncertainty for families as the school year begins.
Add to that uncertainty the fact that parents and school officials around the country are divided, sometimes bitterly, over how to respond to the virus.
Mitigation practices like mask mandates have become deeply politicized, with just 46 percent of Republicans supporting such rules for unvaccinated students, in an August poll by Data for Progress and Vox, compared with 83 percent of Democrats.
Vaccine mandates for teachers and staff are similarly controversial, with 48 percent of Republicans supporting them, compared with 85 percent of Democrats.
And these divisions have led to a patchwork of policies across much of America, with some school districts proceeding relatively cautiously while others open their doors with few restrictions.
Given all this, it’s no wonder many parents are confused and left asking some of the same questions they’ve been asking for more than a year: What should schools be doing to keep kids safe? What should I do if my child’s school isn’t taking those precautions? When will vaccines for younger kids be available? Vox spoke with experts to get answers so families at least have information to help them make decisions.
After all, even though quarantine policies, mask rules, and vaccine timetables can feel confusing and overwhelming, nearly everyone can agree on a couple of common goals: to help kids get an education and to lower transmission of Covid-19. “The ways to do that are very clear,” Paul R. Skolnik, chair of internal medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, told Vox. “It’s just a matter of how to get to the right place.”
Is it safe for kids to go to school?
This is the biggest question on a lot of parents’ minds as they send their kids back to the classroom this fall. Unfortunately, it’s also one without a single, easy answer.
Kids remain less likely than adults to get severely ill with Covid-19. But they can still get sick, and since delta is more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus, more kids around the country are catching it. Pediatric hospitalizations recently reached their highest recorded level of the pandemic, with an average of 303 children admitted per day the week ending August 22.
However, experts say there are ways to reduce the risks of children getting Covid-19 at school. And there are also risks, for many kids, of not being in school, from lost instructional time to missing out on interactions with peers.
“There’s never zero risk in anything we do,” Skolnik said. “Everything is a risk-benefit calculation.”
In general, at this point in the pandemic, experts from the CDC to the American Academy of Pediatrics say the risk-benefit analysis favors getting kids back in the classroom if at all possible. That’s partly because of concerns about learning interruptions caused by more than a year of remote school, which may have exacerbated existing racial and economic inequities in the American school system, as well as having a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities. It’s also because research on Covid-19 transmission in schools is encouraging — to a point.
“We have seen kids across the US and across the world return to in-person learning despite the ebb and flow of Covid spread,” Ibukun Kalu, a pediatric infectious disease physician and professor at Duke University, told Vox. The results show that “children can return back to schools safely, but there are a number of factors that may impact Covid spread in the school setting.”
A lot of those factors are mitigation measures that are in the school’s control. Which brings us to the next question:
What should schools be doing to keep kids safe?
The most effective weapon we have right now against Covid-19 both inside and outside schools, experts agree, is vaccination. “If you are eligible to be vaccinated, you should absolutely, positively get vaccinated,” Skolnik said. Vaccination of teachers and staff, students 12 and older, and all eligible family and community members will help keep everyone in school safer, he said.
But because children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, additional measures are necessary. For a lot of experts, the biggest one is masks. “In settings that implement masking, amongst a few other things, we see low rates of within-school transmission, even when community rates spike,” Kalu said. On the flip side, many have pointed to a recent CDC report on an unvaccinated, unmasked teacher who ended up transmitting the coronavirus to 12 of the 24 students in a classroom as an example of how quickly the virus can spread when no mitigation is in place.
In addition to masks and vaccinations, many say schools should also work to improve ventilation — New York City, for example, has said it will send two air purifiers to each classroom this year. Testing can also be helpful to reduce risk, especially in areas of high Covid-19 prevalence (which is most of the US right now). But in order to be most effective, school systems should implement regular at-home testing “to prevent a child who’s positive from entering school,” Neeraj Sood, director of the Covid Initiative at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, told Vox.
However, a lack of access to rapid tests means few districts are taking this approach. Instead, many are doing the opposite: “A child is already in school, we test the child, the results come 48 hours later, we’ve just confirmed that a child who was potentially infectious was in school the previous three days,” Sood said. Such testing can tell exposed people when they may need to quarantine, but it doesn’t stop exposures in the first place.
Overall, schools should consider combining multiple mitigation measures to get the best results. “We’ve tried to talk about a kind of Swiss-cheese approach,” Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, told Vox. “All these measures together work better than any one alone.”
Do masks work in schools?
Of all the measures that schools employ to stem the spread of Covid-19, probably the most controversial one is masking. While many school districts are requiring masks this fall, some states have banned mask mandates, and debates on the issue have devolved into shouting matches and even violence at schools around the country.
Meanwhile, some experts have questioned the need for masks in schools, pointing out that elementary schools in Britain, by and large, do not use them, relying on quarantines and rapid testing instead — and research last year showed that virus rates within schools did not exceed those in surrounding communities. Sood, for example, supports voluntary masking rather than mandates, arguing that research has yet to conclusively show that masks on their own have a significant impact on Covid-19 transmission in schools. “I’m very reluctant to say we should have a mask mandate for children,” he said.
It’s hard to say exactly which mitigation measures are the most effective since “so many schools made multiple changes at the same time” like requiring masks, improving ventilation, and quarantining exposed students, Kristin Moffitt, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Vox. However, “we have dozens and dozens of data sets showing that these layered interventions” — including masking alongside ventilation, quarantining, and distancing where possible — “are effective,” Moffitt said. Essentially, since we know a layered strategy works, it makes sense to maintain the layers, even if we don’t know exactly how much each contributes to safety.
Others argue that masks in schools make sense based on what we know about masks and Covid-19 more generally. “We know well how to mitigate the spread of this virus and that includes the use of masks,” Skolnik said.
And many see masks as a simple intervention schools can make with little downside. “I don’t think there’s a real detriment to wearing masks,” Smith said. “I don’t think they’re going to be perfect; I don’t think they’re going to prevent all transmission. But I think, better to wear them than not.”
What can I do if my school doesn’t feel safe?
Despite a certain level of controversy around masks, experts generally agree that with a layered mitigation strategy (that “Swiss-cheese approach”), the risk of in-school Covid-19 transmission can be greatly reduced and schools can be safe places for kids this fall.
But if schools aren’t employing mitigation measures, that puts parents in a difficult position. Overall, while 60 percent of parents in the Data for Progress/Vox poll say schools in their community have made the right decisions during the pandemic, 27 percent say they’ve made the wrong ones — and if you feel your child’s school isn’t making the right calls around safety, the prospect of in-person instruction this fall can be frightening.
If you don’t feel that your child’s school or district is taking the appropriate mitigation steps, you may be able to change that. Smith, for example, emailed the superintendent and school board of her child’s district with data on masks, and the district ended up instituting a mask mandate. While not every parent has a background in epidemiology, “you can try to do what you can,” Smith said. Some districts, such as Los Angeles, are also continuing to offer a remote option for families who do not want to send their children back to school in person, though many districts are only offering remote education to immunocompromised students and others with medical needs.
Meanwhile, if officials aren’t amenable to change, families may be able to switch schools or districts — though that depends on whether there’s another one nearby that is taking a different approach to the virus. Failing that, there’s homeschooling — a choice that’s become more popular during the pandemic, with 11.1 percent of families homeschooling children last fall, compared with 5.4 percent in spring 2020. But homeschooling also requires that a parent be available to supervise, which isn’t a possibility for every family. It requires “a huge investment from parents,” Smith said.
These are difficult decisions that can leave parents, yet again, feeling like they have no good options. For parents trying to weigh the safety of in-person school under less-than-ideal circumstances, factors to consider include rates of Covid-19 in the community — transmission is high across much of the US, but you can still look at whether rates are decreasing or increasing in your area, Smith said. Another consideration is whether your family includes immunocompromised, elderly, or otherwise at-risk people who might be exposed to your child.
And parents can also factor in their child’s individual experiences of school in the past year. Smith’s older son, for example, struggled spending his senior year in high school online. If she was facing a choice between in-person and remote school for him again this year, “I probably would have taken the risk and put him back in school with a good mask and, you know, a prayer,” she said. Her younger son, however, has thrived in remote school, and “I would have felt better keeping him home this year, again, if I had to.”
Overall, the decision around school this year “really just depends so much on the individual children and just what the potential of the family is,” Smith said.
What should schools do if a student tests positive or is exposed to Covid-19?
Beyond questions around masking and general safety, quarantines are one of the biggest issues on parents’ minds this fall. Quarantine policies vary by district, but in the past, students testing positive have led to entire classes, grades, or even schools being sent home for 10 days of remote learning — a process deemed necessary to curb spread but one that’s disruptive to students and families. Unfortunately, with the delta variant driving high caseloads around the country, quarantines continue to be a reality of pandemic school. “One of our local districts right now has 152 students in quarantine, out of a population of about 600,” Smith, who is based in Ohio, told Vox.
The good news is that research suggests quarantines can be limited in some cases. For example, the CDC has said that if all students in a school are masked, those exposed to an infected student do not need to quarantine from school. “There are good data demonstrating that the likelihood of infection is very, very, very low in those exposure settings,” Moffitt said.
Not every district is following the CDC recommendation, with some continuing to employ stricter quarantine standards and others leaving quarantining up to parents’ discretion. But the picture is changing rapidly — and for students who are fully vaccinated, it’s significantly better. In many places, those students can stay in school if exposed to someone with Covid-19, as long as they themselves test negative. This is a game changer for many middle and high schools — but, of course, most elementary school students can’t be vaccinated yet. Which brings us to another huge question on the minds of many parents of younger kids:
When will kids under 12 be eligible for vaccines?
For parents staring down another year of quarantines and anxiety, it can feel like the date when kids under 12 can be vaccinated just keeps getting farther away. And that’s not entirely an illusion — Pfizer’s initial goal was to submit data to the FDA by September, and potentially have approval by October, Moffitt said. However, with reports of rare cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, in teens and young adults who got the vaccine, the FDA asked for more data and a longer follow-up period.
Now, the FDA is likely to receive data for review in late fall or early winter, with authorization — as long as the vaccine is determined to be safe — sometime in early to midwinter. “Late November might be the earliest, but maybe more likely December or January,” Moffitt said.
Will schools require vaccines when they become available?
Along with masks, vaccine mandates are one of the most controversial Covid-19 mitigation policies, in schools and elsewhere. Some large school districts, including New York City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, have mandated vaccines for teachers, but almost none have done the same for vaccine-eligible students. However, a few districts, like Fairfax County, Virginia, have required vaccines for students to participate in sports.
And though Americans remain split along party lines on vaccine mandates, a majority (66 percent) do support mandates for teachers and staff, according to Data for Progress. A smaller majority (59 percent) support mandates for eligible students.
When vaccines for children under 12 do become available, schools will be legally allowed to mandate them, Moffitt said. “There is a strong precedent for that in terms of vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella” and other diseases.
However, they’re unlikely to do so until the vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, rather than approved under emergency use authorization. Though Pfizer’s vaccine has been fully approved for adults, it has not yet gained full approval for 12- to 15-year-olds, a process that could take another couple of months, Moffitt said. And full approval for vaccines for younger kids would likely follow a similar timeline.
How can parents help kids who are stressed about going back to school?
Amid parents’ questions about the nuts and bolts of vaccines, quarantines, and masks, many are also trying to help kids adjust to in-person school after many months of remote or hybrid learning — during a pandemic that’s still very much ongoing.
The good news is that parents can reassure children: The risk of severe Covid-19 is very low for kids, Albert Ko, a professor of public health and epidemiology at Yale, told Vox. As of July, children accounted for fewer than one quarter of 1 percent of all Covid-19 deaths, with seven states reporting no pediatric deaths at all, NPR reported. Beyond offering reassurance, parents can also take this as an opportunity to teach kids about good health behaviors including hand-washing, staying home when sick, and getting vaccinated when you can. The message to kids: “You can reduce the risk of transmission and help your communities, your families, but also your schools, by practicing sound public health,” Ko said.
Families can also help kids manage stress by talking not just about the difficulties of the upcoming school year, but also about what kids are excited about, Stacey Doan, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, told Vox in an email. “Having age-appropriate conversations about risk, how things will look different, what might be new challenges, as well as highlighting the positive, things to look forward to, will go a long way.” Schools can also step in to help kids connect with therapy and other resources if they are experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, Kalu said.
Parents also need to tend to their own mental health, which may well be frayed after 18 months of pandemic living. “As parents, we often prioritize the health and well-being of our children, but if we are sick or stressed, we cannot offer the support that our children may need,” Doan said. “So first, take care of yourself.”
And while concerns about kids’ mental health during the pandemic are very real, it’s also true that with support from their parents, most children can weather even this difficult time, whether they are at school in person or learning remotely. “For young children, parents are still the most important agents, thus by continuing to provide a warm, responsive, and playful environment, most children will be fine,” Doan said. “Most children are in fact very resilient.”
What should school administrators and districts be doing to help families right now?
From quarantines to testing to managing kids’ back-to-school stress, there’s no way this fall is going to be easy on families. But there are a few things schools can do to make it a bit easier. The biggest is transparency: Schools should be very clear with parents about “the measures they’re taking to keep the children safe,” Sood said. They should also share data on Covid-19 rates within the school, and, if possible, conduct surveillance testing so they can make sure their mitigation measures are working.
“If they start to see changes in the data that suggest that their mitigation protocols are not working, they should quickly have a plan for adjusting some strategies,” Kalu said, whether that’s how frequently they test or how they group students into cohorts. And if anything does need to change, schools should give families as much notice as possible, “because parents and caregivers are planning around these things,” Kalu said.
Overall, “communication is key,” Moffitt said.
All this might seem like a lot for families and school officials to take in — and it is. As Doan points out, “school administrators are also under a lot of stress.” But the good news is that around the country and around the world, schools have done this before. While everyone involved might wish we could leave pandemic education behind, we at least have a wealth of experience to fall back on.
“We’ve learned a lot through the last year and a half,” Ko said. “We do have the tools at hand to bring kids back to school.”