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Back To School In The Pandemic: An FAQ

This story originally was published by Carolina Public Press.

What is the best way to keep my child safe at school?

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “layered prevention strategies,” the practice of consistently using multiple prevention strategies at the same time.

N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen also advocates the use of layered prevention.

“All of our actions influence our friends, our neighbors, our community, and that’s why layering protection is really important,” she said. “Vaccines work. They’re safe and effective. But masks are also necessary at this moment when there’s so much virus here in North Carolina.”

Students should be encouraged to socially distance and wear masks. State leaders encourage students 12 and older to get the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine.

Because a return to school may cause stress and anxiety, the CDC recommends parents or guardians “make sure their child has a daily, predictable routine, with regular times for healthy meals, naps and night sleep at home. Having a rested body and knowing what to expect at home helps children cope.”

Which North Carolina school districts are mandating masks?

The CDC recommends “universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Gov. Roy Cooper strongly encouraged mask-wearing in schools but did not mandate the requirement.

Some individual districts require masks. The N.C. School Boards Association published a list of mask requirements by district. Find your district here.

What is the best mask for my child to wear?

While some experts recommend KN95 masks for children, the CDC does not make specific recommendations about the type of mask a child should wear.

The CDC recommends having more than one mask and rotating them. The mask should fit snugly over the child’s nose, mouth and chin.

While brands and styles are available, “a mask is only protective if your child is actually wearing it,” an NPR article advised. Find a mask type that your children are inclined to keep on their faces during the school day.

Are teachers required to be vaccinated? What about other school staff?

No. Gov. Cooper required some state employees to be vaccinated, but teachers and school staff were not included in the statewide mandate.

Teachers and school staff were prioritized in the vaccination rollout. The state has about 240,000 education-sector employees, including teachers, cafeteria staff and bus drivers, according to DHHS Secretary Cohen.

Some districts are requiring regular testing of teachers and staff who decline vaccination. A recent WRAL investigation found very few districts are tracking whether school staff members are vaccinated.

Will my child’s school offer regular testing?

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services offered an opt-in program for school-based COVID-19 testing.

School leaders may choose between a state-contracted vendor or an independent nonstate-sponsored vendor. For schools that choose an independent partner, the department will provide tests at no cost to all schools.

A list of participating school districts, private schools and charter schools is available on the DHHS site.

Although the CDC recommends regular testing in schools as “a safe, effective way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and help keep schools open for in-person learning,” some districts have not implemented testing programs.

Union Academy, a charter school in Monroe, returned to classes July 26. The state designated the year-round school as a cluster with 101 cases as of Aug. 24. The school is not on the opt-in testing list.

When will schoolchildren be eligible for vaccination? 

Children 12 and older are currently eligible for vaccination with the Pfizer COVID-19 shot under emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. Free COVID-19 vaccines can be scheduled through the Find My Vaccine Provider online tool.

There is no definite timeline for FDA emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11. The process requires drug companies to submit data from clinical trials to the FDA. Pfizer is currently conducting pediatric clinical trials involving up to 4,500 participants ages 6 months to 11 years across 90 clinical sites in the U.S., Poland, Spain and Finland.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told NPR that although Pfizer could submit data by the end of September, “I’ve got to be honest, I don’t see the approval for kids — 5-11 — coming much before the end of 2021.”

Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Laura Lee | Carolina Public Press