How will COVID-19 affect the 2021 school year.

Updated November 2021

Over the past two years, COVID-19 changed what school looked and felt like for children.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, many schools shifted to at least part-time virtual learning in 2020-21. Other preventive methods included universal mask-wearing and social distancing among students, teachers, and staff.

According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), returning to in-person learning this fall is a priority. Many schools will be returning to full in-person learning.

But with the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) spreading throughout the U.S., it’s clear the pandemic isn’t over yet. It’s as important as ever to help your children stay safe in school this year.

Follow these tips to help keep your children safe from COVID-19 and to help them restart other school routines.

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COVID-19 Prevention in Schools

The Delta variant is now the dominant variant of COVID-19 in the United States. According to the CDC, Delta is more transmissible and more aggressive than previous COVID-19 variants. That makes prevention efforts key if your child’s school is returning to in-person learning.

Get vaccinated

Vaccines help reduce the chances your child will get seriously ill from the disease they target. Along with vaccinations required by your state’s health department, your child should also get vaccinations for COVID-19 and the flu.

Right now, children ages 5 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This is a two-dose vaccine. To be fully effective, your child needs to get both doses, which they receive at least three weeks apart. The vaccine dose for children aged 5-11 is a smaller dose than the one for people 12 and older.

The authorized vaccines are safe and effective in preventing COVID-19. They are especially effective against preventing serious disease, hospitalization, and death. Data show that the vast majority of severe illnesses and death from COVID-19 are among unvaccinated people.

By getting vaccinated, you help stop the spread of the virus and new variants from taking hold in your community, including in your child’s school. That means there’s less of a chance your children’s school year will get disrupted again because of COVID-19.

While COVID-19 has mainly affected adults, that doesn’t mean children aren’t at risk. They can still get infected with — and sick from — COVID-19. And they can still spread the virus to others.

It is still possible to get COVID-19 after being vaccinated. But the best way to prevent COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death is by getting vaccinated.

It’s also important for your child to get their annual flu vaccine. Because of lockdowns, remote learning, masking, and social distancing, flu cases in children plummeted during the pandemic. But in a normal school year, flu is a serious illness for children.

Flu is a highly contagious virus spread by sneezing, coughing, talking, or touching a surface contaminated with the virus. Each year, some 20% to 30% of children get the flu, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Children younger than 5 are at high risk of serious complications from the flu, with 20,000 hospitalized each year as a result.

Masking in schools

The COVID-19 vaccine is a safe and highly effective way to prevent COVID-19. Wearing a facemask that properly covers your nose and mouth is a second highly effective layer of protection.

Children younger than 5 are not currently eligible to receive the vaccine. The CDC says anyone older than 2 years old who is not fully vaccinated should wear a facemask indoors in public places and in crowded settings. Wearing a mask is especially key when it’s difficult to maintain proper physical distancing.

Because of the spread of the Delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking in schools — even if you’re fully vaccinated. All K-12 school students, teachers, staff, and visitors should wear masks indoors, the CDC says.

On Aug. 31, 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Health issued a mandate that all students, teachers, and staff at K-12 schools wear masks while indoors. The mandate went into effect Sept. 7, 2021. It also covers early childhood education programs and day care centers.

Physical distancing in schools

In addition to indoor masking, the CDC recommends students maintain at least 3 feet of physical distancing in classrooms and other school settings. Combined with other prevention efforts, physical distancing can help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Other COVID-19 prevention methods in schools

Vaccination, masking, and physical distancing are three crucial ways to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. But schools can take other preventive steps, including:

  • Screening for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure. Students, teachers, and staff who are showing symptoms of COVID-19, or who have been exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID- 19,
    should stay home and quarantine. People who are fully vaccinated may not have
    to quarantine if they are not showing symptoms. Anyone who is sick, even if they are vaccinated,
    should stay home and get
    tested for COVID-19.
  • Ventilation. Good air circulation can help lower the risk of COVID-19 spread. Opening windows, using fans, and improving HVAC systems can improve the quality of air circulation in the school building. Opening the windows on buses and other transportation vehicles also can help.
  • Hand hygiene. Students, teachers, and staff should wash their hands frequently with soap and water, scrubbing for 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap and water are unavailable, they can use hand sanitizer that contains at least 70% alcohol.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting. The CDC says cleaning and disinfecting the school daily, especially commonly touched surfaces, can help lower the risk of virus spread.

Resuming Daily Routines for In-Person Learning

After COVID-19 disrupted much of the last two school years, many schools are returning to in-person learning. Your child may need help getting back to normal school habits.

Restart sleep routines

To function at their best physically and mentally, children ages 6 to 12 need nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. That’s according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teens ages 13 to 18 need 8 to 10 hours each night.

If your child’s sleep schedule was off during the pandemic, now’s the time to reset rules on sleep and wake times. It can take a few weeks for their body to adjust to the new schedule.

Start adjusting your child’s sleep and wake times several weeks before school starts. Make sure they go to sleep a half-hour earlier and wake up a half-hour earlier until they get the sleep they need and wake up early enough for school.

Focus on fun

Your children’s school years are a time of special memories. Sadly, children missed out on a lot of little activities that usually signal the start of school.

Take some time to get back to tradition. Take your child shopping for school supplies, new clothes, or a new backpack. Maybe make a special meal the night before the first day of school. And get back to taking those first-day-of-school photos.

Pay attention to mental health

Navigating online learning, ever-changing schedules, and feeling isolated from their friends took an emotional toll on many children. Many children also struggled academically. Even without the stress of the pandemic, going back to school can trigger anxiety and depression in some children.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, your child may worry about their risk in school. Maybe they have questions or anxieties about the vaccine, masking, or other prevention efforts.

To ease children into the new school year, talk to them about their mental health. Ask how they’re feeling and whether they have any concerns or fears. Pay attention for signs of depression in children.

Take advantage of any back-to-school days or social events offered by your child’s school. These can help your child meet their classmates before school officially starts, helping to ease the pressures of first day back.

Returning to school is an important step in the U.S. getting back to normalcy amid COVID-19. Although we aren’t fully back to normal, taking steps to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread can help us get there.

For more information about COVID-19, visit UPMC.com/COVID19.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.