With the end of summer and the return to school looming, many schools, teachers, and parents are wondering how best to keep children safe from COVID-19. The delta variant is quickly spreading across the U.S. and the rest of the world, posing new risks to unvaccinated people. Now, the top pediatrics association in the country is answering the question of, Should students wear a mask this school year?
The answer is yes, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also strongly recommends in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year. In a July 19 news release, the organization also urged all who are eligible to get vaccinated to protect against COVID.
As of July 20, about 161.5 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID data tracker. This accounts for only 48.6% of the U.S. population.
So far, Pfizer is the only COVID vaccine available to minors in the U.S. It’s authorized for children ages 12 and older. Moderna has asked for its vaccine to be authorized for ages 12-17 but has not received approval yet. Both Pfizer and Moderna have begun vaccine trials for children aged between 6 months and 11 years.
In addition to vaccines, the AAP said that students older than 2 should wear a mask when returning to school, regardless of their vaccination status. The AAP also endorsed the CDC’s recommendations for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools, especially for schools serving children under 12 and who are therefore ineligible for a vaccine.
The CDC recommends that schools keep at least three feet of physical distance between students within classrooms. When this precaution is not possible, it is especially important to layer other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.
Other layers of prevention include testing, proper ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, and contract tracing combined with quarantine and isolation.
“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers—and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Dr. Sonja O’Leary, the chair of the AAP Council on School Health, in the APP news release. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking, and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”
Research indicates that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission, as long as masking and other safety measures are in place. Given the efficacy of consistent safety precautions, children are at higher risk of suffering mental health issues and developmental setbacks than COVID if they miss out on another year of in-school learning, according to AAP.
The rise of the delta variant, though, has made coronavirus cases rise in all 50 states, and more children are getting sick with COVID as a result.