September is right around the corner, but this year, with the Delta variant surging and national controversies raging about masking, vaccination, and other precautions in schools, the back-to-school rush feels a little different.
“Two things are true at once,” says Leana Wen, a physician, visiting public health professor at George Washington University, and author of Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health. “One is that we are entering what may be the most dangerous time for children during this pandemic as a result of the Delta variant, the escalating numbers of infections, and the fact that people are not taking the same level of precautions as they were last year during this time. The second thing is that we also have a year and a half worth of experience about how to keep school safe.”
To help parents juggle these truths and send their kids back to school with confidence, we asked Wen for some advice. Her five suggestions for nervous parents are compiled below.
1. Trust the research
Research and experience from the 2020–2021 school year indicate that, with precautions in place — such as masking, washing hands, moving activities outside as much as possible, and keeping students home if they feel sick — schools can maintain low transmission rates and stay relatively COVID safe. In districts that are following public health guidance, parents can feel relieved and comfortable sending their kids off — as Wen herself does, knowing that her four-year-old’s preschool is taking the necessary steps to keep the school community healthy.
2. Check with the experts
The issue, she acknowledges, is that some school districts may not be following public health guidance. To figure out where a child’s school falls on the precaution spectrum, Wen encourages parents to check the mitigative measures their schools do have in place against the CDC guidelines for their areas, such as distancing and wearing masks. Doing so, she advises, can help parents be more informed about the environments their children will be entering when they leave home this fall. “Everything that we’re doing at this point is going to have some level of risk,” she explains. “Our goal should be trying to reduce the risk as much as possible.”
3. Advocate for change after building a united front with other families
If a CDC check reveals that your school is not meeting public health guidance, Wen advocates taking action to see if things can still be changed. However, instead of reaching out to school administrators independently, she suggests contacting other families in your child’s class to see if they share the same fears. If they do, you can approach decision-makers as a united front of families, rather than as an outlier. “Talking to other parents builds strength in numbers,” she stresses. “Maybe if other parents agree with you, you can make mask-wearing the norm in your child’s classroom.”
4. Talk to your kids
Another important step to becoming more comfortable with the return to school, says Wen, is talking to your child directly about the upcoming transition. How is your child feeling about the return to school? What does your child think about masking? Asking these questions, she says, can help you anticipate and prepare for the challenges that may arise for your child throughout the course of the day — and may help make everyone feel less nervous.
5. Remember that quality of mask matters
“Masking protects the wearer,” Wen stresses, pointing to the importance of this practice for children heading back to class. And while any mask is better than no mask, she points out that higher-quality masks can keep kids safer. According to the CDC, safe masks have two or more layers of fabric, completely cover the nose and mouth, fit snugly against the face, and have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out.