As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, families and caregivers might worry about their children getting the COVID-19 virus at school.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 outbreaks do happen in school settings. But global research has shown, at least with early variants, that when schools use multiple prevention strategies, the spread of the COVID-19 virus in schools can be lower than or similar to community spread.
What can you do to protect your school-aged child? Consider the strategies schools and families can follow to protect students' health.
Encouraging COVID-19 vaccination
COVID-19 vaccines are available for children age 6 months and older in the U.S. A COVID-19 vaccine and booster doses might prevent your child from getting the COVID-19 virus or becoming seriously ill or hospitalized due to COVID-19. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can also help keep your child in school and more safely participate in sports and other group activities too.
Wearing face masks
School policies vary when it comes to face masks. However, whether or not you're vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a face mask in indoor public spaces if you're in a community with a high number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Wearing the most protective face mask that you'll wear regularly, fits well and is comfortable while indoors can limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The CDC recommends that students and staff who have been exposed or think they've been exposed to COVID-19 wear a mask around others for 10 days after their last exposure.
If your child wears a face mask in school, consider these tips:
- Have your child wear the most protective mask possible that fits well and is comfortable.
- Provide your child with a clean mask and a backup mask each day. Consider giving your child a clean, resealable bag to store the mask during lunch.
- Label your child's mask so it's not confused with other children's masks. Tell your child to never wear another child's used mask.
Screening identifies people with COVID-19 who don't have symptoms and who don't have a known, suspected or reported exposure to COVID-19. This can help keep COVID-19 from spreading further.
If COVID-19 is spreading at a high level according to the CDC, schools might screen all students and staff who participate in activities that may involve a higher risk, such as:
- Choir or band
- Soccer, football or other sports that involve close contact
- Dances or sports tournaments
Schools also may screen students and staff before and after breaks, such as a holiday or spring break.
Schools vary in their use of screening. They may change requirements based on attendance by students at high risk of severe COVID-19. Or they may change requirements based on risk level in the community.
Improving ventilation in schools can reduce the number of COVID-19 virus particles in the air. Opening multiple windows and doors, using fans, or changing the heating, ventilation, air conditioning or air filtration systems can help. During transportation to and from school, keeping windows open a few inches also can improve air circulation.
Schools and parents should encourage students to frequently wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Children should cover their mouths and noses with an elbow or a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Children also should avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths. To ensure thorough handwashing, kids can be taught to keep washing their hands until they have sung the entire "Happy Birthday" song twice (about 20 seconds).
Staying home when sick and getting tested
Students who have symptoms of an infectious illness should stay home from school and get tested for COVID-19. Possible symptoms of COVID-19 in children include:
- Cough that becomes productive
- Chest pain
- New loss of taste or smell
- Changes in the skin, such as discolored areas on the feet and hands
- Sore throat
- Nausea, vomiting, belly pain or diarrhea
- Muscle aches and pain
- Extreme fatigue
- New severe headache
- New nasal congestion
Everyone with COVID-19 should stay home and isolate from others for at least five full days. School policies might vary on when a child who has had COVID-19 can return to school.
If you are recovering from COVID-19, the CDC recommends wearing the most protective face mask that you'll wear regularly, fits well and is comfortable. Wear the mask while you are around other people through day 10. Children who are too young to wear a mask should be cared for in as separate a space as possible by a caregiver who is wearing a mask.
Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. During an outbreak, contact tracing to help students and staff know when to stay home can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Strategies such as improving ventilation or wearing a well-fitting mask also can help prevent further spread.
If your child's school does contact tracing, make sure you understand what steps your child needs to take after a COVID-19 exposure.
Cleaning and disinfecting
Cleaning once a day is usually enough to lower the risk of germs spreading from surfaces in schools. The CDC suggests schools have procedures for staff to follow after meals, after exposure to fluids such as blood or saliva, and after changing diapers.
What to do if your child gets COVID-19
Even if your family and your child's school carefully follow these prevention strategies, it's still possible for your child to get COVID-19. If your child tests positive for COVID-19:
Aug. 23, 2022
- Talk to your child's health care provider. Keep your child home from school and away from others, except to get medical care.
- Focus on relieving your child's symptoms. This might include rest, plenty of fluids and use of pain relievers.
- Contact your child's school. Make sure you understand the school's policy on when your child can return to school. Find out if distance learning is an option while your child remains at home.
- Consider picking one person in your family to care for your sick child. Have that caregiver be with your child and separated from others in your home, when possible.
- Unfortunately, pets can catch COVID-19, so limit contact between your child and your pets.
- Call the health care provider if your child gets sicker. Emergency warning signs include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, and pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds — depending on your child's skin color.
See more In-depth
- Schools and childcare programs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/parent-faqs.html. Accessed Aug. 16, 2022.
- Stay up to date with your vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/stay-up-to-date.html. Accessed April 20, 2022.
- How to protect yourself and others. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html. Accessed April 20, 2022.
- Information for pediatric healthcare providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/pediatric-hcp.html. Accessed April 28, 2022.
- Quarantine and isolation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html. Accessed April 28, 2022.
- COVID-19 guidance for safe schools and promotion of in-person learning. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools/. Accessed April 20, 2022.
- When and how to wash your hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html. Accessed April 20, 2022.
- Caring for someone sick at home. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html. Accessed April 29, 2022.
- Use and care of masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html. Accessed Feb. 28, 2022.
- COVID-19 community levels. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/community-levels.html. Accessed Feb. 28, 2022.
- COVID-19 pandemic: Helping young children and parents transition back to school. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/COVID-19-helping-children-transition-back-to-school.html. Accessed April 28, 2022.
- Guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html#anchor_1625661984621. Accessed Aug. 16, 2022.
- COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/children-teens.html. Accessed Aug. 16, 2022.
- Use and care of masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html. Accessed April 28, 2022.
- AskMayoExpert. COVID-19: Outpatient and inpatient management (child). Mayo Clinic; 2021.