6 ways to keep COVID from messing up another school year

After three school years disrupted by COVID-19, parents, teachers, and kids just want the new one to be… normal. Or as close to it as possible.

And thanks to vaccines, tests, medicines, and better knowledge, that goal might be closer than ever.

But it won’t happen automatically.

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand the United States Food and Drug Administrationboth just updated their national guidance on what schools and individuals can do to reduce COVID-19’s impact this school year.

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“At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to take a universal approach to wellness,” said Laraine Washer, MD, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease and the hospital epidemiologist at Michigan Medicine. “Given the occasionally deadly outcomes of this virus, we all have a responsibility to avoid being around others outside your household when we are sick.”

Here are six things families and educators can do now, and throughout the school year, to give kids a learning experience that’s as normal as possible.

1. Get all the protection you can from vaccines.

Kids and teens who haven’t gotten vaccinated, or who got vaccinated but haven’t yet gotten a booster dose of vaccine should get one as soon as possible.

Last week, the FDA and CDC approved new bivalent booster shots, which offer better protection against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants that are currently circulating. These shots will be offered as a Fall booster:

  • It is recommended that those 12 years and older who received their primary series or prior monovalent booster dose at least 2 months previously should get the new bivalent covid booster vaccine. Those 18 and older can get either Pfizer or Moderna bivalent booster. Those 12-17 years can only get the Pfizer bivalent booster.

  • Children 5-11 years who have had their primary series but have not had a booster dose are only eligible for the older vaccine booster

And do not forget the younger siblings of school-age children. Safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are available for kids as young as six months old.

Studies have shown that vaccinated kids and adults, and especially those who had been boosted, tend to have less severe symptoms.

Back-to-school time is also a time to make sure children and teens are up to date on their other vaccines, especially if they missed regular doctors’ appointments in the last two and a half years.

Mark your calendar to get everyone over the age of 6 months vaccinated against flu this fall. Down in Australia, where the flu circulates during their winter while Americans are enjoying summer, it’s been an especially bad flu season. That could mean this winter will bring bad flu to the US

2. Use masks wisely.

Masks continue to protect against COVID-19, including new against new variants that can sneak around the immune system.

The new CDC guidance recommends schools require masks any time the surrounding community’s level of COVID-19 is at “High” And it says that anyone wishing to wear a mask in school when levels are lower should receive support.

Your back-to-school shopping list should focus on higher-filtration masks. If your child is struggling to wear a well-fitting surgical or higher filtration mask such as a KN95, KF94, or N95 masks, a cloth mask is better than nothing. The best mask should be well-fitting and comfortable enough for your child to wear throughout the day.

Other mask recommendations:

  • Even if a school doesn’t require masks at “High” community levels, talk to children and teens about how voluntarily masking when there’s a lot of COVID in the community could keep them from getting sick and having to miss school.

  • Anyone who lives with or has been a close contact of a person who has COVID-19 should also mask in public for 10 days.

  • Masks may be required in classrooms where high-risk kids are learning; see the section below.

3. Keep sick people home and away from others.

This advice hasn’t changed: people with fevers or other potential symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home, in isolationuntil at least five days have passed and fever is gone for 24 hours without the help of medicine.

Isolating means separating the infected person from the rest of the household in a closed room, bringing them food and drink to leave outside their door, and requiring them to wear a mask if they have to come out to use a bathroom. Learn more about isolation.

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Some individuals who are immunocompromised may need to isolate or wear a mask longer and or have negative rapid antigen tests twice in a 48-hour period to end isolation.

People who had shortness of breath or were hospitalized for COVID-19, or who have an immune system that’s been weakened by a condition or medicationshould isolate for the full 10 days.