This fall, most schools are resuming in-person learning. Some school districts are instituting mask mandates, others are not. This ambiguity can make it difficult for parents to know what to do: while adults and children ages 12 and up can get vaccinated, younger children cannot—and the COVID-19 pandemic is still rampant.
“Until children under 12 are able to get vaccinated, they’re still vulnerable to COVID-19,” says Tisa Johnson-Hooper, M.D., a pediatrician with Henry Ford Health. “The Delta variant is quite transmittable, and more children are being impacted by it. They’re not just getting infected, they’re requiring hospitalization and intensive care. We’re seeing more long-term effects from COVID-19 in children, too."
Here, Dr. Johnson-Hooper shares what steps you can take to protect your children from COVID-19 at school.
1. If your children are eligible, get them vaccinated.
“If you want to feel comfortable in your vaccination decision, use reputable sources to look at the data and the facts,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and your pediatrician are great sources. I tell families, ‘you trusted me to handle your child through infancy, you can trust me now to give you a recommendation that has your child’s best interests at heart.’”
The data says that the COVID-19 vaccines are incredibly safe and effective in protecting against severe COVID-19 infection. “One of the reasons why these vaccines have been delayed in children is that such stringent research and evaluation is required to deem them safe for each age group,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. “So when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says they’re safe and effective for kids, we know they’ve been thoroughly vetted.”
2. Be a vocal parent.
Find out what COVID-19 safety plans your school is implementing. If masking and social distancing will not be required, speak up. “Go to school meetings, talk to the superintendent. Express your concerns,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. To back up your argument, use reputable sources like the AAP, which recommends a mask mandate for all children.
“Masking is an issue of equity,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. “Children with underlying conditions and children who are not eligible for vaccination do not have the same opportunity of health as those who are healthy and who are eligible for vaccination. Mask wearing can level the opportunity of health.”
Also, if masks were mandated at school and everyone complied, the risk of viral transmission and disease would greatly decrease among students, teachers, staff and families. "Wearing masks will help assure that children have as close to a normal school year as possible,” she adds.
3. Regardless of the school’s policy, have your children wear masks at school.
“Tell your children that we wear masks because the science says doing so will help keep us safe,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. “Give them anticipatory guidance and rehearse conversations of peer pressure. Ask what they’ll say to someone who says they don’t have to wear a mask. Give them the words to advocate for themselves and empower them to be their most authentic self.”
4. Give yourself anticipatory guidance, as well.
Whether it comes to potential playdates or after-school sports, knowing how to ask if other children will be wearing masks or social distancing can be tricky. “Try to anticipate situations and think of responses so they’re readily available when you’re caught off guard,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper. “In a non-judgmental, genuine way, ask whether people will be vaccinated or wearing masks. If the parents say, ‘no,’ you can say ‘thank you for including my child, but we’re not going to do that right now.’
“In these cases, you can assume that the parents are not as well versed in the latest pandemic data. I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t want the very best for their child, so if you base your conversation on care and concern for the children, you can go into that interaction with civility.”
Still need your COVID-19 vaccine? Schedule an appointment at Henry Ford.
Dr. Tisa Johnson-Hooper is a board-certified pediatrician and serves as the medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center- New Center One in Detroit.