How an epidemiologist plans to send his kids back to school amid COVID-19 surge

(NEW YORK) — As parents across the country brace for another school year upended by the coronavirus pandemic, they are also face rising concerns over kids’ safety amid the delta variant and the vulnerability of unvaccinated children.

One of those parents preparing his children for an unpredictable school year is Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and ABC News contributor.

We asked Brownstein, also an ABC News’ contributor, how is he preparing to send his two children, ages 10 and 11, safely back to school in-person later this month.

“My view is still that we will likely be able to keep our kids in person, but this virus has to keep us humble and things might change,” he said. “As long as we recognize it’s not one size fits all, and that we’re flexible and nuanced, I think we can still aim to have a great year for our kids.”

Here are four steps Brownstein said he is taking for his kids’ new school year:

1. I’m having my kids wear face masks.

Brownstein said his children’s school is asking all students, teachers and staff to wear face masks, regardless of vaccination status, which he supports as a way to help keep people safe and allow for in-person learning.

His children are too young to be vaccinated as currently only children ages 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.

“We know that there is substantial high transmission of COVID happening around this country right now, and when you have a lot of transmission in the community, that will spill over into schools,” he said. “If parents consider the individual risk of their kids, but on top of that the risk of having to go virtual [learning], it makes sense for them to consider masking their kids, as a way to make sure to preserve the school year ahead.”

Brownstein said his kids were able to do in-person learning last year by wearing face masks, of which he recommends families have a large collection, so kids have continual access to clean face masks.

“We went with cloth masks because our kids had more affinity for them and we knew that they would adhere to it,” he said. “And through the year, we found that our kids were incredibly adherent … and generally speaking, they were able to have a normal school year, despite having this cloth on their face all day.”

2. I’m asking school administrators questions.

Brownstein said he has kept an open dialogue with the leaders of his kids’ school over the past nearly two years of the pandemic.

“What we found is school administrators do have the essential objective of keeping kids safe and keeping the school going and everyone wants that for our kids,” he said. “And the teachers, above all, are looking to keep their classrooms in person, so having conversations with administrators, with teachers about understanding protocols, why decisions have been made and being an active voice in making some of those decisions is critical.”

“Parents can be a really effective advocate for making sure that the kids can have a safe school year ahead,” he added.

Brownstein said some of the questions parents may want to ask include:

  • What are the school’s mask guidelines? At what points in the school day can kids take mask breaks?
  • When will students gather in indoor settings, like auditoriums, gymnasiums and lunchrooms? What is the masking requirement in those environments?
  • What is the school doing to make sure there is adequate ventilation?
  • Are there any COVID-19 testing requirements?
  • Are teachers and staff required to be vaccinated? What is the status of vaccination among students who are eligible for the vaccine?

3. I’m not stressing about cleaning groceries, surfaces at home.

While many parents were worried about disinfecting everything from groceries to countertops in the beginning of the pandemic, that can be much less of a concern for parents now, according to Brownstein.

“What we now know is that transmission is really driven by respiratory air droplets and aerosols, and the other modes of transmission are just far and away less of a concern,” he said. “If we want to give our kids a normal year and we want to try to get back to normal, we should be aiming to focus on those high-transmission events.”

“That’s why the focus has been on masking and social distancing and ventilation, because those are really the places in which transmission can take place,” Brownstein added. “Some of those other activities I really do think that we can do away with for this year.”

4. I’m staying flexible and optimistic.

Brownstein says he is looking at the return to school in the context of the need to keep kids, families and teachers safe, while keeping in perspective kids’ relative low risk of severe complications from COVID-19, balanced with the need to give kids a fulfilling school year.

“With that balance, we can’t live in fear,” he said. “We have to make sure to be flexible and nuanced as we approach the school year, and recognize that it still might not be a normal year, but we should aim for the most normal experience.”

Brownstein added that he and fellow parents still, “have to be reasonable if things change, if we have to cancel certain activities, and certain types of events can’t take place because of the level of transmission in the community.”

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