What parents should know about COVID as the school year begins
As much as the public may be over COVID, the disease doesn't seem to be over them.
“At the current time, we’re still in a very high COVID transmission,” said Eugene Curley, a WellSpan infectious disease doctor, noting that it's important for parents to take it under consideration as schools reopen.
From his observations, he's noticed people are relaxing with COVID safety protocols — a result of COVID fatigue as the pandemic nears its third anniversary.
“No one is really enforcing it,” he said, adding that the relaxed precautions could explain the current COVID surge.
Curley and John Goldman, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center infectious disease doctor, noted they expect to see another COVID surge with the start of school. Curley said he noticed COVID has had less severe hospitalization and death rates in the past eight months.
“It is still occurring less often in kids,” Curley said, adding that children can still contract a severe case.
Goldman said COVID is “becoming a less severe disease” as people get vaccinated or become immune. He thinks COVID is "less of a concern than it used to be." Children and their families are more immune to COVID now, he said. Children have also "done better with COVID" than adults and he doesn’t expect many children to become infected.
Nonetheless, Goldman suspects there are at least two to three times more COVID cases than reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Both Curley and Goldman agreed vaccination is the best route to protection, though it is not required to attend school.
“It’s much safer for kids to be vaccinated,” Goldman said.
Curley suggested parents “first and foremost” get their children vaccinated against COVID, with shots available to children as young as 6 months old, and stay up to date with COVID boosters.
State officials met with Pittsburgh officials Aug. 11 to encourage parents to vaccinate their children against COVID before the new school year.
“As children complete their routine vaccinations and head back to the classroom this fall, I strongly encourage students to get fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 even if they have already had COVID-19,” said acting Secretary of Health and Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson.
Department of Human Services acting Secretary Meg Snead said she had her children vaccinated because she wants to do everything she can to keep them safe.
Curley said the difference between this year and last year is that home tests are more common now. Test takers do not need to report those results to the state department.
He also recommends masking up, since social distancing is difficult with school being indoors and children sitting close to each other. Likewise, it's important to teach children good hygiene and remind them not to touch their faces — a practice that can help prevent the spread of most disease, not just COVID.
Both doctors also recommended regularly screening the children for symptoms.
“When children are sick, they really need to stay home,” Curley said, adding that parents should keep a close eye out for the symptoms.
Curley explained COVID symptoms mirror the flu or common cold, which is why it is important to test the children at home or go to a doctor for testing.
“The symptoms should be taken seriously,” he added.
Parents' biggest concern now is the “health and safety of the students," he said.
Curley said most school districts are leaving masking up to the students.
“Parents are going to have to weigh risks and benefits,” he said about parents deciding whether their children should wear a mask.
For his own family, Curley asks his son to mask up daily for safety.
“I don’t expect a large majority of students and even staff wearing a mask,” he said.
Those who are at risk are still a wild card, Curley said. At a minimum, they should wear a mask, but it would be better if those around them also regularly mask.
He recommended that parents with questions about vaccinating or masking speak with their family doctor.
Goldman said there is not much more to prepare for COVID apart from vaccinating.
“We’re all balancing the risks of social distancing,” he said, noting that children don’t learn as well amid the isolation enforced as part of COVID protocols.
For his part, Goldman said he doesn’t think social distancing is as vital now and that masking is an individual’s decision. Depending on the situation, children in school may not need to wear masks.
Of course, he added, the question of to mask or not to mask is based largely on how prevalent COVID is in the community at any given time.
Goldman thinks COVID will someday turn into a common circulating disease that disrupts daily life less, like the flu.
It simply hasn't yet.
“We’ve never had 100,000 cases of the flu during the summer,” he said.
Goldman added that COVID is going to be around for a long time. Humans will have to learn how to live with it, he said.
— Reach Meredith Willse at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.