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Vaccines, masks key to keeping schools open

By: Dr. Marsha D. Raulerson, MEd. MD FAAP, Brewton Pediatrician

Vaccination and mask-wearing are the keys to keeping our schools open this Fall.

Safely returning to in-person instruction for the 2021 school year is a priority.  Some children have thrived with virtual learning—but most have not. One of the most important skills for children is developing meaningful friendships through shared experiences. Active play with friends is especially important for young children to learn. Older children and teens have missed out on sports, graduation, after-school jobs, volunteering, and just having fun with friends. Nationwide, we have seen a mental health crisis effecting our kids. In some states suicide is now the number one cause of death in children as young as age 10.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on all of us. We have felt powerless to deal with daily frustrations including loss of work, inadequate childcare, putting off family vacations and for some having adequate food. But for many this pandemic has also meant seeing family members and friends get very sick and even dying.

In the last few weeks, we have seen a dramatic uptick in cases of COVID mostly due to the Delta variant. This virus seems even more contagious and is infecting children in increasing numbers. Because people infected with Delta carry much higher levels of virus it can spread quickly and infect more people. We have just learned that people who have been fully vaccinated can have a milder illness but still spread the virus.

How can we protect our children and still keep our schools open? The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Medical Association, The Center for Disease Control, The US Department of Education all agree on these recommendations:    

Students benefit from in-person learning. Safely returning to in-person instruction is a priority

Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person   learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.

Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta Variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older). Staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

In addition to universal indoor masking, CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classroom to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as screening testing.

Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.

Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.

Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing).

Added recommendation as of August 4, 2021: Fully vaccinated people who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be tested 3-5 days after exposure, regardless of whether they have symptoms.