UNC Health Talk

Is It Safe to Go Back to School?

As summer nears its end, parents are experiencing the worst kind of déjà vu. They’re wondering: Is it safe to send my child to school this fall, while we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s the same question parents were asking a year ago, though in that time some important things have changed: We now have safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19 available to everyone ages 12 and up. Unfortunately, not enough people have received them to keep the virus from mutating.

The much-more-contagious delta variant is now surging across the country, especially in the South. More children are being hospitalized than with previous versions of the virus. That leaves parents and educators in the lurch again, worrying about how to protect young children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination while trying to maintain employment (and family sanity).

“Parents are in such a tough spot right now, because there is not a perfect answer. Do they send their children to school, or do they keep them at home, either using a virtual option or home-schooling them?” says UNC Health pediatrician Edward M. Pickens, MD. “For some, those other options are simply not available, but I get calls from parents every day, asking for my opinion. We’ve got to balance the individual risk and the risk to society with the downside of continued social isolation. It’s so frustrating, and the fact that we could have prevented this surge with higher vaccination rates makes it even more frustrating.”

In the 18 months we’ve lived with COVID-19, we’ve learned that children are less likely than adults to contract the virus and experience complications, hospitalization and death. But children certainly aren’t immune to the virus—an increasing number are testing positive and doctors don’t yet know the long-term effects of coronavirus infection.

Experts do know that it’s critically important that children be able to attend school in person, for their academic and social development, and sometimes for their physical health and safety. Millions of American children rely on school for free or reduced meals, access to the internet, mental health support and vital services such as physical, occupational and speech therapy.

“It is true that most children with COVID have fairly mild symptoms, but that’s not true for everyone. There are thousands of children who have gotten extremely sick, and many of those have even died from complications of COVID,” Dr. Pickens says. “And, something that many parents haven’t considered is that every time their child gets a cold, they’re going to get sent home from school, and they’re not going to be able to come back until they have a negative COVID test.”

As a parent, you don’t have to navigate return-to-school challenges alone. Here is a framework for thinking about sending your student back to school.

Factors to Consider When Sending Your Child Back to School

Your community: The risk level in each community is different and continually changing. It’s wise to keep tabs on infection rates in your area. It’s also good to know how vaccinated your neighbors tend to be; are you in a region with a relatively high vaccination rate or a low rate? The higher the vaccination rate in your community, the safer children are at school—and everywhere else.

“Getting vaccinated against COVID is about more than just protecting individuals; it’s about protecting the individuals who are at greatest risk of complications, which means that we have to limit its spread,” Dr. Pickens says. “The only way to do that is to vaccinate as many people who can get the vaccine as possible, so the people who cannot get the vaccine—children—won’t get exposed.”

Your school: Don’t be afraid to ask your school’s administration what steps are taken to lower the risk of transmission in school. Are masks required? Is physical distancing maintained? How are classrooms ventilated? You can even ask what percentage of the staff is vaccinated against COVID-19. And what is the protocol if a staff member or student tests positive? The more steps your school is taking to reduce transmission, the better.

If your school will not require masks, you can ask your child to wear one anyway and emphasize the importance of physical distancing and frequent hand-washing.

Your family: Is everyone 12 and older living in your household vaccinated? If not, make that happen as soon as possible. If someone in your home is immunocompromised, meaning the vaccines might not be as effective, or is older than 65, talk to that person’s doctor about how to stay safe while a child in the household is attending school.

If your child is the one with a medical condition, such as a neurologic, genetic or metabolic disease or congenital heart disease, he or she is at higher risk from COVID-19. You’ll want to talk to your child’s doctor about whether it is safe to return to in-person schooling.

Preparing for Another COVID-19 School Year as a Parent

Most parents will choose to send their children to school in person this fall, and many schools aren’t even offering a virtual option anymore. But unfortunately, parents have to stay prepared in case the virus continues to mutate as vaccination rates stay too low; that could mean a return to virtual learning at some point during the coming school year.

Take these steps to make sure your family is as ready for the school year as possible:

  1. Make sure you have masks for your child that he or she finds comfortable and knows how to use. Keep enough ready so your child can wear a clean one each day.
  2. Talk to your child about ways to keep safe from COVID-19: masks, physical distancing and telling an adult right away if he or she has any symptoms of illness.
  3. Make sure everyone 12 and older in your home is vaccinated against COVID-19.
  4. Think about how your family can adapt if virtual learning becomes a reality again. Is there a vaccinated relative or babysitter who could help? Is there equipment you might need that you don’t have?
  5. Do not send your child to school if he or she is sick, especially with signs of COVID-19.

“Parents set the example for their children. The CDC has recommended wearing masks in public, again, so parents can show their children that they’re doing it as well,” Dr. Pickens says. “This has turned into a test of how much the members of our society care about each other and want to protect each other. I know we can do better.”


Questions about returning to school safely? Talk to your child’s doctor. If you need a pediatrician, find one near you.