In this stressful back to school season, use “layers” of precautions to keep everyone safe

Español — Spanish 

Back to school often comes with feelings of nervousness and anticipation. However, families may feel even more nervous and concerned this year, because the COVID-19 Delta variant is circulating. Delta spreads more easily, so the risk of getting infected is higher.

This calls for extra attention to precautions by our schools, families who have already worked so hard to keep their children safe, and the larger community.

We know the benefits of in-person learning are tremendous, particularly for students who have felt the isolation strongly. School is key to healthy child and adolescent development. To reduce the risk from Delta to the greatest extent possible, we need to use a combination of strategies consistently and in a “layered” approach – at school and at home and in the community.

Students, staff, and families can help to protect each other by getting vaccinations for everyone who is eligible. Inside and outside of school, we should wear well-made and snug-fitting masks and keep physical distance as much as possible. We can get tested and stay home when we have symptoms (even mild ones) or are exposed to COVID-19. And we must improve indoor ventilation in K-12 schools and child care centers, remembering that outdoor activities are lower risk than indoors. 

Outside of school, our entire community can support families with school-aged children. All of us should wear masks when in indoor public settings. We should get vaccinated if we are eligible. And if we all limit our high-risk activities during the current Delta surge, it will help protect our children.

While these steps can make a difference and help slow the spread of COVID-19, there likely will be disruptions to normal routines. It’s a uniquely challenging time for families and caregivers.

At this stage of the pandemic, parents and caregivers are continuing to weigh the risks for their children, especially unvaccinated children. Weighing the risks every day, with limited options, takes an emotional toll on families and caregivers. Thankfully, even in the current surge of new COVID-19 cases across different age groups, the rate of hospitalizations among people 17 years or younger remains very low. There is no significant change compared to hospitalization rates for this age group over the previous 12 months.

Get vaccinated!

Everyone eligible for COVID-19 vaccine can do their part to keep K-12 schools and child care centers safe for kids!  Vaccination is the single most important way to reduce the risk to teachers, staff, eligible students and families. K-12, child care and higher education staff in Washington state are required by the State to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by October 18.

Currently, COVID-19 vaccination is available for everyone 12 years and older. We are hopeful that a vaccine may be available for children ages 5 to 11 by the end of the year, and younger children soon after. 

This does leave a timing gap. School starts before younger children are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine and before the deadline for staff to be fully vaccinated. This timing gap understandably concerns families. It takes an emotional toll on families constantly weighing risks to protect their children.  

We may not have a COVID vaccine to protect younger children yet, but we do have vaccines to protect them from diseases likes measles and whooping cough. All children should get up to date on routine vaccinations before the first day of school. Students who are missing vaccinations may not be allowed to participate in classes, sports, or other activities until they get all the vaccinations routinely required for school entry.

Students can get required vaccines for free from their healthcare provider, or at events and clinics near them. Many King County schools also have School-Based Health Centers that can serve as an important resource for parents seeking advice about COVID-19. These Health Centers offer comprehensive primary care and behavioral health services, including vaccinations, mental health support, and sports physicals.

When your children are eligible, please get them vaccinated. It’s the most effective way to reduce risk.

Layered strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19

In addition to vaccination, the state has developed requirements and guidance for schools and child care centers to minimize the risk of disease. The strategy calls for creating multiple layers of protection – a layered approach. 

All staff and students ages 5 and older are required to wear a mask and stay as distanced as possible, especially during activities like lunch time and other high-risk activities. When optimal distancing is not possible, other layers of protection are essential – like improving indoor ventilation, moving some activities outdoors, and screening testing.

A young girl demonstrates how to wear a face mask properly. Text includes three thought bubbles that read "This mask is too BIG," "This mask is too SMALL and "This mask is JUST RIGHT" A bulleted list written on school notebook paper reads: Mask must cover nose and mouth, snug fitting with no gaps, made with 2-3 fabric layers, made of tightly woven breathable material , wash your mask daily
This graphic illustrates effective mask wearing and good mask practices for all ages.

Students need to stay home if anyone in their household tests positive or has been diagnosed with COVID-19. And families should make sure students who have symptoms or who test positive stay home. These sample scenarios and the isolation/quarantine page can help further explain how long to stay home.

Families can help by making sure masks fit snugly and are cleaned or replaced regularly. When you wear a face mask, you protect others as well as yourself, especially if you are not vaccinated and/or are around others who are not vaccinated. An added benefit of universal masking is protection of students and staff against other respiratory illnesses that would take time away from school.

Schools are required by Washington state to have consulted with a professional engineer or HVAC specialist to determine the best way to maximize ventilation and filtration of air in each area of the school in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Portable high efficiency (HEPA) air cleaners can supplement ventilation. These are most critical in rooms with worse ventilation or in areas set aside for people with symptoms who are being evaluated for COVID-19 at school.

Schools are also required to provide access to COVID-19 testing when students have been exposed or are showing symptoms. They are required to regularly screen (test for COVID-19) unvaccinated students and staff participating in indoor sports. In addition, schools are encouraged to provide screening testing for other students, especially if students participate in higher-risk activities like singing and some music. These screening tests help identify infected students early and decrease the risk for outbreaks.

All of these layers, taken together, can dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Preventing and containing outbreaks

Public Health – Seattle & King County supports school districts on their COVID-19 safety plans. When outbreaks occur, Public Health works closely with schools to contain cases, investigates cases, advise those who have been exposed and make recommendations to districts on how to prevent or contain the outbreak. In light of back-to-school and the more contagious Delta variant, Public Health is prioritizing additional resources to support schools in their efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks.

When an outbreak does occur, the final decision on closing a school lies with the school districts themselves. School administrators consider several factors whenever a case occurs including:

  • How many people were exposed?
  • Were those exposed wearing masks?
  • If vaccine eligible, were those exposed vaccinated?
  • When and where did those exposures occur?
  • How many people need to isolate or quarantine?
  • Do classes, practices or other school activities need to be canceled in order to contain the spread?

The King County school response toolkit is an important resource for schools. It provides guidance on how to respond quickly and effectively when COVID-19 cases arise, including notification templates to support school outreach to families and students.

Communication between school districts and Public Health can help prevent a single case from quickly spreading through an entire school. The goal is to make prudent decisions about safety without taking steps that are unnecessarily restrictive.

You can review what happens in an outbreak investigation in this previous blog post.

Links to more questions & answers

Change is constant in this COVID-19 world. As the situation evolves, Public Health will continue to provide information and answer additional questions related to children and schools on the following web pages:

Frequently asked questions about schools and child care during COVID-19

COVID-19 outbreak data including schools and child care

Originally published on August 26, 2021