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5 Back to School COVID Considerations for Parents

It’s back to school time. In my family, which includes a 6th-grader and an 11th-grader, we’re assembling pencils, pens, pads of paper, and folders, just like any other year. Except that we’re still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, so this back-to-school experience is a unique one.

My kids attended school virtually all of last year and part of the previous one, and it was tough. They missed their friends. They spent too little time outdoors, and too much time online, at least in my opinion. Sometimes they zoned out or fell asleep during class.

It was stressful for all of us. And I know that it’s been even tougher on some other families—especially the poorest and most underprivileged ones, whose kids are falling behind disproportionately in their learning because of the pandemic.

While I’m relieved that my kids and about 50 million others in the US are heading (at least partially) back to school, I’m also concerned about navigating the ongoing reality of parenting in a pandemic. Topics that keep coming up in conversation with other AdaRose community members include:

  • The latest on kids and COVID

  • Masks and kids at school

  • Vaccinating kids early

  • Sleepovers, play dates, and extracurricular activities during COVID

  • Back to school transportation during COVID

So in this post I’m going to do a quick update on the basic lay of the land when it comes to kids and COVID and then jump into five less often discussed back-to-school considerations during COVID and share how my family is handling them.

1.) What’s the latest on kids and COVID-19?

Last winter as several COVID vaccines were approved it felt like we were finally able to glimpse the end of the pandemic and “get back to normal.” Indeed the vaccine has been a literal lifesaver, and I am deeply grateful for it.

Unfortunately, though, in the US, not enough people have chosen to get vaccinated to actually wipe out the pandemic through so-called herd immunity. In addition, the Delta variant of the virus has recently emerged and has proven to be both easier to spread and more dangerous to health. Even people who have been vaccinated are encouraged to wear masks to avoid its spread through “breakthrough cases.”

It bears repeating, if you haven't yet, please get vaccinated! But what if you have one or more kids under 12, as I do, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine? Unfortunately, as unvaccinated kids go back to school, cases of COVID are rising, and in some cases kids are spreading the virus even to their vaccinated parents and/or getting very ill themselves. Experts fear the problem will continue to grow as kids go back to school en masse in the near future.

If you think your child may be sick, keep him or her away from others and get a COVID test. If your child does test positive, let your pediatrician know, keep your child hydrated, and keep him or her away from other unvaccinated family members. If symptoms get worse, seek emergency care.

2.) Masks and kids at school

One of the most effective ways to keep your kid safe from COVID is masking. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends universal masking in schools for teachers, staff and students—anyone above the age of two.

Where I live in Washington DC, fortunately the politics of mask wearing are not as fraught as in some other areas. In Texas, for example, the state Supreme Court halted mask mandates in two of the largest districts the day before school opened, leading to confusion, escalating outbreaks, and disputes among officials and parents alike.

Our family fully supports mask wearing, as does most of our community, so we have it relatively easy. Still, though, we face smaller challenges, like where to buy masks, how to make sure they fit, and how to take care of them.

For us, finding the right masks continues to be an exercise in trial and error. Some masks fit too loosely and fall off, others get sucked into your nose or mouth when you breathe. Yet others are so uncomfortably tight that they bend your ears. Fitting kids’ little faces can be an extra challenge.

A few things I’ve tried that didn’t pan out in masking our family include using mask extension hooks, like the ones on the left, and mask brackets like the one shown on the lady in red (why does anyone wear lipstick like that under a mask?).

Image credits: Amazon

The best masks I bought for my 11 year old are fabric. I got them at a highway rest stop last summer for about $1.99 each at the checkout next to the gum. Had I known how well they fit I’d have bought 20! Unfortunately I’ve tried numerous highway rest stops since then and never been able to replicate them. My older daughter prefers the disposable variety (like the ones on the right) to fabric.

I’m intrigued that the CDC still discourages use of N95s since they are prioritized for healthcare workers. I ordered a stash of N-95s for both of my kids before reading that, but I’m not sure yet how they’ll work out. Though I doubt I’ve contributed to shortages of N95s for healthcare workers (under 12!) I hope I haven’t kept them from children who are at higher risk than mine.

One more thing: CDC recommends you throw out a disposable mask after each use or wash a fabric one “at least once a day”. Um, yeah, we still have some work to do to keep up with that one.

3.) Vaccinating kids early

This is a contentious one. My child will turn 12 during the school year. She is still too young to be eligible for the vaccines (now available only to kids 12 and over). I just wish we could’ve gotten it before school starts next week.

According to the latest news, younger kids may be able to gain immunity with a lower dose of the vaccine than older children have received, so that’s a plus—in part because it will stretch our supply further for others in this country or abroad.

Anyhow, when my older daughter (now 16) got her shots, no one verified her age (she was in the appropriate range). While on the one hand some parents are fighting to keep the vaccine away from their kids, I’ve heard a lot of stories about parents of kids younger than 12 that have actually snuck them in for a shot early.

If it had been legally open to us, as parents, to decide whether we were comfortable vaccinating our 11 year old a few months early based on available research data, my husband and I would’ve said yes. Babies as young as six months old are now in trials of the vaccine without significant red flags, and given that we’re so close to our daughter’s 12th birthday, we would’ve preferred the risk of administering the vaccine early to going to school without it.

For our family, though it was tempting to vaccinate our youngest early, we decided against it. The first reason is the moral one. Neither my husband nor I wanted to lie about our kids’ age and teach them by example that it’s OK to circumvent a policy or perhaps even law for personal benefit. That’s a slippery slope.

But there was a practical consideration, too. It’s possible that at some time in the near future a vaccine passport will be required to participate in certain activities. If a child is “illegally” vaccinated before it’s her turn, how would we later obtain proof of vaccination for her without perpetuating the lie about her age (which would conflict with various official records) or, say, re-vaccinating her, which would be questionable from a health perspective?

Bottom line, we’re waiting it out, though I know some others have pushed to do it early or just gone ahead and vaccinated underage children by lying about their ages.

4.) Sleepovers, play dates, and extracurricular activities during COVID

Most outdoor activities, like soccer games, feel pretty safe for unvaccinated kids. Throughout last year my family organized a running group for other families with kids who joined us in running (masked) outdoors every Friday afternoon. Things get dicier when activities are indoors or require close contact. I’m comfortable with my child going to an in-person piano lesson with a teacher who is vaccinated (and they are both masked).

But it can get a little awkward when people in your social group have different levels of comfort with COVID precautions. For example, some of our kids’ friends’ families are OK with sleepovers for unvaccinated kids. I’m not, and it’s unfortunate that my daughter feels left out of those activities.

On the other hand, there are many situations in which different families have different ideas about what’s acceptable for their kids--especially teens. COVID is just one other area for potential teaching (and sometimes arguing!) about where to set the boundaries. And I have had some great experiences in just having an open exchange with other parents, even when our boundary lines are drawn a bit differently.

In the “still evolving” category, my older daughter has a good friend who hasn’t been vaccinated because of an underlying medical condition. We have allowed that friend to stay in our home (our older daughter is vaccinated). I assumed it was recommended that people with her condition not get vaccinated, but I’ve since learned that she is likely at increased risk of complications from COVID because of her condition.

I would feel a lot more comfortable if the friend were vaccinated because I don’t want her to get seriously ill, and also because she might be less likely to spread the virus to any of us, including my unvaccinated younger daughter.

Hmmm, it can quickly become a tricky situation. I don’t want to be in the role of trying to educate that family, whom I don’t know well, about vaccination, and maybe there is some detail about their situation I don’t know. How are you navigating these complex dynamics? And how would you handle future sleepover requests?

5.) Back to school transportation during COVID

One final topic: how to get kids safely to and from school. I used to be able to walk my youngest to school, but she will be attending school in a new building this year, so that’s no longer an option. Our school doesn’t have a bus to where we live.

There are some public transportation options, like trolley, or bus… but I really don’t want her on there, potentially with unvaccinated adults or others who may have COVID and not even know it. Also, she’s still pretty young.

So we’re looking at a carpool with multiple parents and multiple kids. Ideally, we’ll all keep the windows open in the car, and everyone, including and especially parents will be masked. It’s not a lot of fun to run through those requirements on behalf of your child, but maybe I’ll use something like this funny guidance from the CDC about how NOT to wear as mask:

how not to wear a mask

What decisions have you made to keep both your children and other children safe and healthy this year, and what led you to those choices? I’d love to hear how you’re navigating back-to-school this year, and if you have any tips, tricks or advice that can help others get through the coming season as safely as possible.

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