Back to school in 2021: How to keep your kids safe, healthy and in school


by Kirstin Sepulveda, BSN, RN   and Dominic Lucia, MD

Jul 28, 2021

It’s time for kids to go back to school. As the pandemic has shown us, kids do their best learning and social development in person. Of course, we want them to be healthy and safe, but we also want them to be in class.

The great news is, a few common-sense measures can help keep our schools safe this year. We can take steps to limit the spread of illnesses like COVID-19 and give our kids a chance to be kids again—just with a few extra precautions.

If you’re preparing to send a child or teen back to school in 2021, here are a few things to keep in mind about COVID-19.

Full vaccination is the best protection.

There is so much misinformation out there about the COVID-19 vaccine, but in truth, it’s proven to be a very safe and very effective vaccine. Vaccination is highly effective at reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection and helps to prevent severe infection and hospitalization. Evidence suggests that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are also less likely to have asymptomatic infection or transmit it to others.

Knowing that your children are vaccinated can give you peace of mind as they head back to school, play sports and enjoy all the other activities that come with being a kid.

If your child is 12 years or older and hasn’t been vaccinated yet, make sure they get the vaccine in time to be considered fully vaccinated before school begins. You can schedule a vaccine appointment today in the MyBSWHealth app. If your child is under 12 and therefore not yet eligible for the vaccine, it’s even more important for your family to continue masking up, washing your hands and physical distancing to protect your little one. Follow this guidance from the CDC for families with vaccinated and unvaccinated members.

Consistent and correct mask use should be continued in areas of substantial or high transmission for anyone over 2 years old, regardless of vaccination status. Physical distance and limited exposure should be prioritized when someone cannot wear a mask (like when eating). Refer to the CDC’s in-school guidelines for more information.

Healthy hygiene starts with you.

Aside from vaccination, the most effective infection prevention measure is hygiene. Regular hand hygiene is paramount, especially when potentially facing exposures to multiple pathogens.

For small children, make handwashing a fun activity by turning it into a game or family sing-along. Develop a consistent daily routine such as washing hands immediately before and after eating to help kids easily adopt habits. Set an example by modeling proper mask usage and cough etiquette.

Encourage children to avoid sharing objects (such as school supplies) with their peers, and to maintain at least 3 feet of space between people. Be prepared for the school to operate differently than in previous years; for example, if water fountain use is restricted, consider packing a water bottle.

Be aware of complications like MIS-C.

Despite similar infection rates, children are less likely than adults to experience severe illness or death from COVID-19; they are more commonly asymptomatic or have mild, non-specific symptoms. 

However, Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) is a serious condition where organs (including the heart, kidneys, lungs, brain, skin, eyes and GI tract) become inflamed. All cases have been associated with COVID-19 infection or exposure. It can occur weeks after infection, even if the child or family did not know they had COVID-19.

We have had several children admitted to our hospital because of MIS-C. If your child begins showing symptoms of MIS-C, call your doctor or seek urgent care. Symptoms of MIS-C include a fever AND any of the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Feeling extra tired
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Neck pain
  • Rash
  • Vomiting

The delta variant is highly contagious.

The delta variant appears to be at least twice as transmissible as the original virus, with children under 18 testing positive five times more than older adults.

As kids head back to school, we can expect the delta variant to continue spreading, but vaccination and common-sense safety measures can help stop the spread. The most recent data estimates that full vaccination is highly effective against symptomatic disease with the delta variant.

Use caution with sports and other activities.

Exercise causes you to breathe heavily, which can potentially allow infected respiratory droplets to travel further than they would at rest, so it is especially important to wear masks and maximize distance when participating in indoor activities (such as sports, choir, band, theater, etc.).

Some factors to consider when evaluating an activity are:

  • Setting: Generally, transmission risk is lower outdoors than indoors.
  • Physical closeness: Transmission is more likely to occur with sustained close contact, such as during a wrestling match or football game.
  • Number of people: The more people who are associated with the activity (players, coaches, referees, spectators), the greater the risk.
  • Level of intensity: Heavier breathing and more exertion can allow respiratory droplets to spread further.
  • Duration of time: Longer time spent together (including travel time) means higher risk.

Please stay home if you or your child is sick with anything. The more people your child interacts with and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of spreading illness.

Talk to your child about how they’re feeling.

Mental health is also very important. Talk with your children about how school and interactions will look different. Anticipate behavior changes as they adapt and look for signs of stress and anxiety. Communicate with your child regularly about their emotions and reassure them that what they may be feeling is normal.   

As a parent, what you’re feeling is normal, too. We all want our kids to keep learning and to stay safe and healthy while doing so.

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About the Author

Kirstin Sepulveda, BSN, RN, is an infectious disease nurse at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Specialty Clinic – Temple.

Dominic Lucia, MD, is a pediatric emergency medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center, where he serves as Chief Medical Officer and Medical Director of the Emergency Department.

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