Keeping kids safe at school during COVID-19

September 1, 2021 Swedish Pediatrics Team

covid classroom


Key takeaways:

  • The pandemic is once again creating unique challenges for families during the back-to-school season.

  • Vaccination, masks and social distancing can help protect children at risk of contracting COVID-19.

  • A pediatrician answers your most frequently asked questions about keeping kids safe, especially with the delta variant circulating.


Does attending in-person school during a pandemic put my child’s health in danger?

Will a mask protect my child from COVID-19?

Is it safe for my child to play team sports with the delta variant spreading so quickly?

If those questions sound familiar, you’re probably like many other parents trying to navigate back-to-school season safely amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. It’s hard, frustrating and often confusing to try to keep up with the constantly changing guidance, scientific research and safety recommendations. But when you’re armed with facts and advice from trusted caregivers and sources, you can make informed decisions with more confidence.

Although it initially appeared that COVID-19 did not cause a substantial health risk for children, the numbers have been steadily increasing with the emergence of the delta variant and more than 4.5 million children have tested positive since the pandemic began. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), delta is more than twice as contagious as previous variants, and can cause more severe symptoms if you haven't been vaccinated.

Since not all children are eligible to receive a vaccine, they can be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. For parents and other caregivers, keeping their kids safe is a top priority. Still, it's often difficult to know the best way to proceed. We talked to Rupin R. Thakkar, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at Swedish, and uncovered answers to your most pressing questions. Here’s what he shared.

What is the best way for parents to keep their kids safe heading back to school?  

Dr. Thakkar: All children 12 and older who are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine should get both doses before the start of the school year. The vaccine is safe and effective, and it's one of our best tools to prevent disease and community outbreaks. 

All students should wear a face mask. When masks fit well and are worn correctly, they are effective and safe to wear for the entire school day. The vast majority of children, even those with medical conditions, can wear face masks with practice, encouragement and role-modeling by adults.

If kids wear a mask indoors at school, what about instances where masks may need to come off such as eating in the cafeteria, outside, gym class, nap time for young kids, etc.?

Dr. Thakkar: When kids need to take their masks off, schools should ensure that kids can be spaced six feet apart. When the weather and air quality allow it, open windows and doors can also improve air circulation.

How is the delta variant affecting children specifically? 

Dr. Thakkar: The delta variant is far more contagious than previous variants, and that is especially true for kids. While we don't know if the delta variant causes any more significant symptoms or disease than previous variants, we do know that it's more transmissible. This means kids are now more at risk of getting COVID-19 than they were before. 

While thankfully, most kids who get COVID-19 tend to have milder symptoms than adults, that is not always true. Kids can be hospitalized or become severely ill with COVID-19. With a more contagious variant going around, we need to keep up our safety measures. 

What do you tell parents about planning playdates, social gatherings or sports with children that are vaccinated and unvaccinated? 

Dr. Thakkar: Having activities outdoors with more fresh air and room to spread out dramatically lowers the risk of getting COVID-19. Keeping gatherings small, wearing masks, practicing hand hygiene and distancing when practical are all key measures to reducing COVID-19 transmission. These steps can be particularly challenging for young kids, so they need frequent reminders and modeling by adults. 

Do you have an idea of when the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for those under the age of 12?

Dr. Thakkar: There are vaccine trials underway for kids as young as 6 months old, but these trials are in different stages for different age groups. We are expecting that the vaccine will become available to kids 5 years and older before the end of the year, but it will be later for kids under 5. The vaccine timeline may continue to change as the science evolves.

What do you tell parents who are nervous about sending their children back to school with the uptick in cases?

Dr. Thakkar: It's normal to feel nervous about your kids returning to school during this time. After all, everything feels so uncertain. But going to school in person is how children and teens learn best. Schools also provide more than academics. Students learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health and other support services. If schools and families work together to ensure layers of protection are in place, such as vaccination, masking, good ventilation, and good hygiene, in-person learning can be safe.


Find a doctor

If you have a question about COVID-19 or vaccines, please let us know. We’re here to help you make an informed and educated decision to keep you and your family safe.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

Related resources

CDC, FDA recommend third dose of COVID-19 vaccine for immunocompromised patients

FDA formally approves Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

What you need to know about booster shots this fall

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Whether it relates to vaccinations, allergies, nutrition or sleep, The Swedish Pediatrics Team is committed to helping you find resources to ensure your littles grow up healthy and strong. Our clinical experts offer tips, tricks and clinical advice to help you take care of your children.

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