As children return to classrooms, playgrounds and team sports amid another surge in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant, they need to know how to prevent the virus’ spread, especially among those under age 12 who can’t be vaccinated yet.
“For the unvaccinated, including children younger than 12, snug masking, reasonable distancing and clean hands are going to be very important for their protection,” says Dr. Susan S. Huang, medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention for UCI Health.
Huang explains why the delta variant is so concerning and offers tips parents can follow to protect their children.
Q. What is the delta variant?
A. Variants of COVID-19 arise when there are large numbers of cases and the virus replicates in humans. As it doubles, mutations can arise, sometimes making the virus weaker and sometimes making it stronger.
The delta variant is at least 50% more contagious than the original virus and some studies show it can produce more severe disease. It became the dominant virus strain in the United States within the last two months and is now responsible for at least 95% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases.
Q. What does this mean for the unvaccinated?
A. Because the delta variant is more contagious, the chances are incredibly high that you will get COVID-19 if you are exposed to someone with it. The risk that you will pass it onto others is also very high.
Q. What does this mean for those who are vaccinated?
A. The COVID-19 vaccines all have shown strong protection (more than 90%) against severe disease, including hospitalization and death. However, breakthrough mild disease is occurring, so it is also important that vaccinated people wear snug masks and clean their hands before touching their face.
Q. How can I protect my children when they are at school?
A. The best way to protect your children as they return to an in-person learning environment is to give them the basic safety tools:
- Mask — Find a snug-fitting mask that they feel comfortable wearing. If they like it, they will wear it. The mask should be at least two-ply. Test the fit by asking your child to pretend to blow a candle out. You shouldn’t be able to feel any breath through the mask. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
- Physical distancing — In addition to universal indoor masking, the CDC recommends maintaining at least three feet of physical distance between students in classrooms to reduce transmission risk. Six feet is even better, especially when masks are off to eat or drink. Show your child what three and six feet looks like by spacing chairs apart or marking the distance on the floor with tape. Visual cues help everyone do a better job estimating this.
- Hand hygiene — Handwashing is extremely effective against the virus but finding a sink with running water is difficult in class or on a playground. Hand sanitizer is equally protective. Make sure your children have hand sanitizer in their backpacks or on their person to use after touching things or other people. The key is to always ensure that your hands are clean before touching your eyes, nose, mouth or mask. Very young children need to be shown how to use sanitizer properly and told never put it in their mouths or drink it.
- Vaccinate — Make sure everyone in your home who is eligible gets a COVID-19 vaccination. Approval for vaccines in children ages 5 through 11 isn’t expected until mid-winter. When parents and teens are vaccinated, they form a wall of protection around those under age 12.
Q. What if others aren’t following these safety guidelines?
A. Children and adults make the best decisions if they’ve had a chance to think through situations beforehand. Help your child practice what to say to friends about COVID-19 safety. Show them how to express themselves in a friendly way, while also protecting themselves from infection.
Here are some examples of “what if” scenarios:
- Eating with friends — Eating is always the riskiest time of day because we are taking off our masks and putting food and drink into our mouths. Nobody imagines their friends can make them sick and yet we know that people are contagious two days before they show symptoms of COVID-19. Anybody who looks perfectly fine may be contagious. Teach your child to stay six feet away from others when they remove their mask to eat.
Scenario: A friend sits next to them. Your child could say, "Hey, let's go sit over there where there's more space so we can stay six feet apart and talk safely during lunch."
- Sharing hand sanitizer — Using hand sanitizer frequently should become second nature. Teach your child to share sanitizer or to ask for sanitizer if objects are passed between people in the same classroom. Teach them to use it before touching their face, mask or glasses.
Scenario: A friend touches their mask without cleaning their hands. Your child could say: “I have some hand sanitizer. Would you like some so you can clean your hands before you touch your mask or your face?”
- Encourage testing — Teach your child to be mindful of anyone with cold or flu symptoms, even if mild.
Scenario: A friend is sniffling, coughing or complaining of a sore throat or headache. Your child could say, “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. I think if I had a sore throat or headache, I’d ask my parents to have me tested. That way I’d either know for sure if it was COVID or be happy that it wasn’t. Do you think you might want to go get tested?"
- Refusing to wear a mask — Masking has proven to be one of the best ways to protect yourself and others from spreading the virus. Teach your child ways to handle situations when others won’t mask.
Scenario: A friend says, “I don't believe in masks.” Your child could say, “I know you don’t like wearing a mask, so let’s try to distance while we talk. Is that OK? It would make me feel better.”
- Outdoor safety — Virus particles disperse more rapidly outdoors, but kids should still try to stay six feet apart when they are unmasked and having conversations or eating with friends.
Scenario: A soccer game has just ended and everyone is crowding around the snack table. Your child is the team captain and she says, “Even though it’s safer outdoors, I don’t think that means we can crowd around and eat right next to each other. Let’s space out a little more since we don’t have our masks on.”
Practicing these and similar scenarios will help your child feel comfortable and less anxious about being back at school. “Don’t assume people remember what to do,” Huang says. “Set an example for safe practices and encourage others to follow safe guidelines.”
These strategies also empower your child to help create a healthy learning environment and reduce their chances of getting sick or bringing COVID-19 back home to younger children or the immunocompromised adults in their lives.
Learn more ways to protect your children as they return to school in English and Spanish.