COVID-19 Guidelines for Kids Going Back to School

Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS
August 3, 2021
3.5 mins

The summer of 2021 kicked off with Americans across the nation celebrating the reopening of restaurants, shops, and other indoor venues. The swift distribution of vaccines freed many of us from our lives in quarantine, at least in some measure. Yet for parents and guardians of children younger than 12, confusion, questions, and fear remained. The vaccines available for adults are not approved for use on children younger than 12. And now, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 causing a new rise in cases, the situation is even murkier. 

(Read “The COVID-19 Delta Variant: What You Need to Know as a Vaccinated Person” to learn more about the Delta variant.)

As schools plan to reopen while the virus still spreads (primarily among unvaccinated people), some parents worry about keeping their young ones safe.

Health organizations across the nation have come out with guidelines and recommendations for a safe school year. Here are some answers to important questions parents and guardians may have.

+ When will COVID-19 vaccines be available to children under 12? 

One of the best protections that people who live with young children can provide is getting vaccinated themselves. This makes them much less likely to contract and spread the virus in their household. The development of a vaccine for children under the age of 12 is still in progress. The immune system of a child is different from that of an adult, so a different approach may be needed to create a vaccine for kids.

And researchers have made good progress toward creating such a vaccine. Most experts believe that a vaccine for children will be ready in six months to a year. But you can’t rush science!

+ Does my child need to wear a mask at school? What about outside at recess? On the bus?

The CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that all unvaccinated people over the age of two continue to wear masks indoors, including in vehicles. Unvaccinated people may remove masks outside, unless the area is crowded, in which case masks are still recommended. 

Nationally, people who have been vaccinated are not required to wear masks indoors; however, as of this writing, many local areas have reinstated mask requirements due to rising cases of COVID-19. In crowded or poorly ventilated environments, wearing a mask is an additional layer of protection against COVID-19, even for people who are vaccinated. 

Children younger than two are not required to wear masks, as it may obstruct their breathing. 

Even when students can be vaccinated, some school districts may continue to require masks. Be sure to consult with your school or local school board to understand requirements in your area.

+ I’ve seen people use everything from handkerchiefs to balaclavas as masks. What works and what doesn’t?

Over the past year and a half, the world's scientists have learned a lot about COVID-19 and how it spreads. With this information, we've also learned the best practices and tools to prevent infection, and chief among them is masks.

But knowing which masks will help and which won't isn't easy. A lot of contradictory information has floated up over the course of the pandemic, and some parents may be unsure of the truth. 

Here’s a summary of mask guidelines from the CDC:

     • Do: Use a mask made of a breathable, airy fabric, preferably cotton. 

     • Do: Use masks with two or three layers or with a removable filter pocket. 

     • Do: Make sure your mask is snug and conforms to your face.

     • Do not: Use masks with exhalation valves or vents. 

     • Do not: Use a stitched or knitted mask (a knitted muffler is not effective), or a mask with any holes light can pass through.

As a general rule, masks made for medical professionals are effective. 

+ When vaccines for them are available, will my children need to be vaccinated to attend school?

Whether or not your children will require vaccines to return to in-person classes depends on where you live. Different states and localities have differing regulations. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have rushed to clarify, change, or introduce laws on school vaccine immunization requirements. 

In the wake of public debate over mandatory vaccines, some states, such as Ohio, have passed recent legislation allowing families to claim exemption on the grounds of personal beliefs. Others, such as New York, have taken a different path, ending laws that allowed for personal belief exemptions. You can find detailed information on your state's laws at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website.

+ How can I tell if my child has contracted COVID-19? What do I do if I think they’re sick? When can they return to school?

Although children younger than 12 are at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19, any signs of COVID-19 symptoms should be taken very seriously.

Typical symptoms of COVID-19 in children younger than 12 are:

     • Fever (over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) 

     • Cough

     • Runny nose

     • Loss of smell

     • Shortness of breath

     • Sore throat

     • Body aches or fatigue 

     • Nausea and vomiting 

For children who were exposed to, tested positive for, or showed symptoms of COVID-19, when they can return to school depends on their situation.

If your child tested positive for COVID-19 but showed no symptoms, they may return to school ten days after the positive test.

If your child tested positive for COVID-19 and had symptoms, they may return to school at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms, if they also have had 24 hours without fever (without the aid of fever-reducing medicines) and if other symptoms are improving.

Anyone who is unvaccinated and is in contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for ten days from the day of contact, even if a COVID-19 test is negative. 

If your child tested negative for COVID-19 after showing symptoms, the CDC recommends waiting 24 hours after all symptoms have disappeared before they return to school.

Download the Carbon Health app or visit carbonhealth.com to make a virtual or in-person appointment with a healthcare provider. 

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published. But note that our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 are developing and changing very rapidly; if you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 precautions, treatments, and vaccinations, please talk to your healthcare provider.


Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS

Bayo Curry-Winchell, MD, MS, is a board-certified practicing family physician based in Reno, NV, where she serves as Regional Clinical Director for Carbon Health and Medical Director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group. Curry-Winchell is dedicated to highlighting healthcare disparities and is a member of the Mayor’s Taskforce and Governors Medical Advisory Team on COVID-19.

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