As kids and parents gear up for the back-to-school season, the U.S. is still in the midst of a pandemic. So what will the coronavirus situation be like in classrooms this year? With vaccines available for kids ages 6 months and up, things might be a little different this year — but probably not as different as parents would like.
"Everyone wants this to just be like every other virus, but it's not," Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told TODAY. For instance, the mortality and hospitalization rates are still higher with COVID-19 than with the flu, he said.
And there are rare but severe health complications related to COVID-19 that specifically affect kids, such as MIS-C, Dr. Bill Petri, chief of the division of infectious diseases and international health at UVA Health, told TODAY.
So, while COVID-19 tends to be less severe in children, that's not a reason to not get kids vaccinated or give up on public health tools, he said. "You do all the precautions because why have your child suffer at all if you can prevent it with a vaccine?"
Will COVID-19 spread in schools this year?
The U.S. has been dealing with a wave of COVID-19 cases since about mid-May, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the number of cases has hit a plateau, hospitalizations have started to increase.
Right now, nearly all cases in the U.S. are caused by the BA.5 variant, CDC data show. BA.5 is a subvariant of the omicron strain that appears to be even better at getting around protection from vaccines and previous infections than its predecessors, TODAY explained previously.
Kids in some areas of the country are already heading back to classrooms amid the current surge. By the fall, this current wave will likely have "run its course," Petri said, considering how many people have been infected by this variant or another recent omicron subvariant.
But there could be another omicron subvariant and "presumably there will be" this fall or winter, Petri added. And there's always a chance that another variant that isn't related to omicron could emerge as well, he said.
What can parents and schools do to make in-person learning safer?
At this point, we know what works, the experts said. "Our advice is probably no different than it was a year ago," Milstone said.
Get your child vaccinated
"The most important thing is to have your children vaccinated," Petri said. "And every child 6 months of age and older is now eligible to be vaccinated."
Kids between ages 6 months through 4 years can now get the three-dose Pfizer vaccine or the two-dose Moderna vaccine, the CDC explains. Kids 5 years and up can get Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, both requiring two doses in the primary series. While boosters are not recommended for kids younger than 5 right now, kids older than that are eligible to get boosted depending on when they received their last dose of the primary series.
Unlike many other childhood vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines aren't necessarily required to go to school. Among kids ages 5 to 11, 30% are fully vaccinated and just 3% have gotten a booster, CDC data indicate. For kids under 5, the rates are even lower: Just 4% of kids in this age group have gotten a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports.
So, while you might be able to assume that most other adults around you are vaccinated in a given scenario, it's safer to assume "that most of the kids in your child's class might not be vaccinated," Milstone said. But he also noted that vaccination rates can vary widely depending on where you are in the country.
Encourage your child to keep wearing a mask — especially indoors
"Masking was very, very effective at preventing the spread in schools, but that's not a public health intervention that the public is enthusiastic about anymore," Milstone said. Wearing a mask is especially useful in indoor classrooms, he said, but it's likely less necessary in an outdoor camp scenario, for example.
Petri agreed that "wearing masks makes sense." Most of the U.S. has at least a moderate COVID-19 community level, as defined by the CDC, which means that masks are recommended for people who are at a higher risk for severe symptoms and those who interact with high-risk people. But, if you're looking for an extra layer of protection, a mask is an easy thing to add, Petri said.
Use rapid tests
"We have so much more ability as individuals to sort of control our fate than two years ago or even one year ago," Petri said, including the availability of at-home rapid tests.
Make use of rapid testing when someone in your household has noticeable symptoms that could be COVID-19, after exposure to someone who has the virus and before and after traveling.
Testing in those situations is crucial because "the biggest way to interrupt transmission is to isolate someone who is infected," Petri explained. Rapid testing at home, while less sensitive than PCR testing, is one way to make that more possible.
Protect yourself, too
If you get COVID-19, everyone in your household — including kids — is also at risk. So, one way to protect your children is to keep taking precautions to protect yourself, the experts said.
That includes getting boosted if you haven't already. Maybe you haven't gotten around to getting your booster, but "if you realize that you're protecting your child or your spouse, that might be more motivation," Petri said.