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As School Starts Again, Here's How To Keep Kids Safe From COVID


Early in this pandemic, it seemed children were being spared the worst of the coronavirus. But now, as the delta variant spreads across the U.S., doctors are seeing more and more sick children. Children younger than 12 aren't yet eligible for a vaccine, and millions of students are going back to school this month. Rules for things like masking and testing vary widely, so NPR's Pien Huang is here to talk us through how to try to keep our children safe. Good morning, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: I gather you spoke with a number of public health experts who also happen to be parents. As a father, I know one of the fundamental laws of nature is any time children get together, germs are going to spread. What should parents do if one of their children wakes up with the sniffles?

HUANG: Well, the doctors I spoke with all said that sniffles can mean a lot of things. It can be a cold. It can be allergies. Or it could be COVID. And Seema Lakdawala, a flu researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, went through this recently. Her 8-year-old woke up with a runny nose. Step one, she says, is to keep her home. And step two...

SEEMA LAKDAWALA: I will call the pediatrician and just talk through where we've been. If we were traveling, I think I would be more concerned. If we'd been on a plane recently, then I would, you know, definitely want to try to go get her tested.

HUANG: In this case, she and the doctor both thought that it was allergies. And sure enough, the kid took some allergy meds, and she stopped sneezing.

SIMON: So no COVID test in that case. But what would prompt doctors to suggest that a child should get tested?

HUANG: Well, it might be the symptoms, if your child has a fever or loss of taste and smell, or it might be the situation, if your child has been exposed. And it helps to do some research now to know where you could get tested quickly. Maybe your pediatrician has walk-in hours. Maybe your local health department runs a site nearby. And some of these places can actually give results in 12 to 24 hours these days. That's for a PCR test, which is still considered the gold standard.

Another option is to keep some antigen tests at home. You can get these 15-minute rapid tests from many pharmacies. And they can add up. They generally cost about $25, but they are considered fairly reliable for people with symptoms. So if someone has the sniffles, it could give you a pretty good read.

SIMON: What if a child tests positive? What should parents do then?

HUANG: Well, for starters, they should not panic. Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, says kids are very resilient.

CASSANDRA PIERRE: Yes, with the delta variant, we are hearing about more cases of infections, significant infection in children, hospitalization in children. But still, we know that children are less likely to get those severe complications.

HUANG: Now, before it happens, come up with a household plan. Is there a room and bathroom they can have to themselves? Lakdawala and her husband have two young kids, so their plan is to split into parent-child pairs. One cares for the sick kid, the other for the not, and they'd stay in different parts of the house and take turns in the kitchen. But if space is tight, there are other things you can do. Everyone should wear masks except when eating or sleeping. You can open the windows, run some fans, use an air filter. And after a few days, test to see if anyone else is sick. And if you think you might need backup, you can come up with a list of family, friends and neighbors that are fully vaccinated.

SIMON: Pien, what if another student tests positive for COVID? Would their classmates then need to quarantine?

HUANG: Well, the CDC definition of a close contact at school is actually fairly limited. So if your child was at least 3 feet away from someone who tests positive and they were both fully masked, your child is not exposed. But if one of them wasn't masked, then your kid would probably need to quarantine, assuming that they were not vaccinated.

SIMON: And what would that look like?

HUANG: Well, the experts I talked with said just be reasonable. You know, keep some distance, especially from vulnerable or unvaccinated people at home. Wear masks if you can. But the child doesn't necessarily have to go to their room and stay there. And the rest of the family can generally go about essential business. One expert said she would feel comfortable sending the rest of the family to school and work and the grocery store with masks, but she would cancel nonessential things, like play dates and dinners out.

SIMON: NPR's Pien Huang, thanks so much for being with us.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.