August means back-to-school in many parts of Southern California. While parents have strongly demanded the return of in-person learning, they have new concerns as COVID infections and hospitalizations have risen over the past few weeks, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.
School districts are implementing new protocols to stay ahead of potential outbreaks. Los Angeles Unified, for one, is requiring weekly coronavirus tests for all students and employees regardless of their vaccination status.
But as children under age 12 are awaiting FDA clearance for vaccines, Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, offers advice on how to keep the young ones safe in classrooms.
KCRW: What kinds of COVID precautions should students and their parents take?
Dr. Michael Wilkes: “We certainly need to get kids back to school. Reopening schools does involve some risk, and so does keeping schools closed because of loss of learning and social isolation.
The good news, though, is that schools have been pretty safe places, particularly when teachers are fully vaccinated, and when masking rules are in place.
But parents are and employers are going to need to be flexible as conditions change. They surely will over the course of the fall and winter.”
What would be your biggest concern as a parent?
“Little people are hard to corral or get them to keep their masks on. But there is a chance that schools can do this safely.
And that will require the same sorts of things that we've been talking about: wearing masks, making sure the distance is appropriate, and making sure that the objects that kids are playing and touching are kept clean.
It's important to remember that measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio are just some of the diseases that have moved from major illnesses to rare occurrences because we required vaccines for children to attend school.
To keep kids healthy, it's important that they remain up to date on all of their vaccinations. We've seen a drop in routine childhood immunizations during the pandemic. One thing that parents can do is get their kids caught up on immunizations to avoid outbreaks of these other diseases.”
Do school temperature checks make sense?
“Not really. First, it's not really feasible. Second, there are lots of things beside COVID that cause fevers. Families should keep them at home if they have a fever above 100.4. But I don't think routinely checking kids' temperatures makes any sense.”
What about routine testing for COVID?
“The CDC recommends testing be offered to students who have not been fully vaccinated when there are high levels of COVID cases in the community.
Screening should also be aggressively offered to all teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated. To be effective, the screening programs need to happen at least once a week. And the results need to come back within 24 hours.
This is an area I think where we can be pretty aggressive at making sure that those that haven't been vaccinated are being tested regularly.”
What about potentially crowded places like buses, hallways, playgrounds?
“The hardest one is going to be hallways when people are mingling before school in between classes and recess. Lunches are going to be tough as masks obviously need to be removed.
But being on buses, masks should certainly be required, while kids should be encouraged to walk or bike.
Once at school, stairs and hallways should have one-way arrows on the floor playgrounds. We need to stress as much as we can to distance activities.
But none of this is going to reduce the risk to zero.”
Is it safe for kids to take part in (team) sports like football, volleyball or soccer?
“This is the most common question, but there is no good answer. Extracurricular activities need to be considered on a sport-by-sport basis. Things like wrestling are much more risky than soccer.
It's clear that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones. Social distancing is key. So is not sharing equipment. Coaches, parents, spectators should be kept apart and away from players.
However, regardless of the sport, those that are in close contact are at some risk.”
What about supporting children with special needs?
“There's not a one-size-fits-all decision. That will need to be made based on the age of the child and the risk of complications from COVID.
They are all going to require careful thought, but it will also depend on local infection rates.
Parents should discuss this with their children's pediatrician.”