Seven strategies to keep COVID-safe at school

When COVID-19 first started spreading in the United States in early 2020, millions of students went into lockdown. Parents and school staff struggled to see how they could limit classroom spread of the coronavirus. So kids were stuck at home, with access to school only through their computers. Many continued learning remotely through the 2020-2021 school year.

But in many places, students returned to in-person learning during that same school year. And they managed to do that safely. I wanted to know how they did it. I’ve been reporting on COVID-19 throughout the pandemic for publications like Science News and my own site, the COVID-19 Data Dispatch. As part of a big project, “Opening,” I investigated five places around the country where school reopening did not cause COVID-19 outbreaks during the last school year. These were school districts in Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and Texas, and an elementary school in New York City. At each place, most students returned to in-person class and COVID-19 case numbers remained low.

As part of my investigation, I talked to superintendents, teachers, school nurses and other staff. Those conversations made me realize that the schools in my project had a lot in common. From central Brooklyn to coastal Oregon, the schools used similar strategies to safely reopen. And these point to lots of ways students can help to keep themselves safe.

Here are seven ways, based on my research. (This list is a student-friendly adaptation of a story originally published for adults at the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.)

Wear a mask that fits well and that you can wear comfortably all day.

Face masks are one of the easiest ways to limit the spread of COVID-19, especially if you haven’t yet been vaccinated. That’s why masks are required in many school buildings across the country. Masks block coronavirus particles, making it harder for the virus to spread. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have shown this to be true.

The delta variant gives us a reason to invest in better masks, says Robin Cogan. Cogan is a school nurse in Camden, N.J. She also is the legislative co-chair for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association. Delta spreads from person to person more easily than past variants, so we need to work harder to protect ourselves against it. Schools should “require properly fitting masks that are worn correctly,” Cogan says.

Your mask should cover both your mouth and your nose. And if it fits properly, it will be snug against your face. It won’t have gaps at the side of your cheeks or at your chin. Gaps could let coronavirus particles escape. It’s also a lot easier to wear a mask all day if it’s comfortable. Try out different fabrics and shapes until you find a mask that suits you.

Learn the common COVID-19 symptoms so that you can recognize them in yourself and your friends.

COVID-19 shares a lot of symptoms with a cold or the flu. These include fever, cough, sore throat and a runny nose. But the coronavirus has other symptoms, too, that aren’t as common for cold or flu — like suddenly losing your sense of smell, and developing diarrhea and nausea. 

Some schools that safely reopened taught parents, teachers and school nurses about common COVID-19 symptoms. These adults could then better identify when a student who wasn’t feeling well might have COVID-19, and send them to get tested. That can help keep infected kids out of school where they could spread the disease.

“Parents are pretty good at understanding the symptoms of their kids and the health of their kids,” says Katelyn Jetelina. She is an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Parents can become a “layer of protection,” she says, along with other layers like masks and vaccines. But if kids learn to recognize those symptoms themselves, they too can become a layer of protection.

Ask your teachers to open the windows or even have class outside.

The coronavirus spreads through the air, so to prevent infections, many schools have made it easier for air to circulate through the building. They may have upgraded systems to bring in more air from outside. Or they might have installed air filters to pull virus particles out of classrooms.

But there’s one more simple, low-cost way to increase airflow in your classroom: Open the windows. Open windows make it easier for air to move and carry virus particles outdoors. And if the weather is nice, you could ask to have class or lunch outside. Studies show that the outdoor spread of coronavirus infections has been incredibly rare.

Volunteer to get COVID-19 tested (if your school has that option), and show your friends how easy it is.

In the past year, many schools have started programs to regularly test students for COVID-19. They might use a PCR test, which looks for coronavirus DNA. Or they might use a rapid antigen test. This test looks for coronavirus proteins.

It’s important that testing be unbiased, Jetelina says, so that no infections are missed. That means everyone gets tested, including students who don’t have any COVID-19 symptoms or exposures. If testing isn’t required for everyone at your school, you can encourage your friends to join the program. Show them how easy it is to get swabbed — like picking your nose, only a little less gross.

If your school doesn’t have a testing program set up, ask your teachers about it. Some schools are still figuring out their testing options and what might work best.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or talk to your friends about COVID-19.

Jetelina calls COVID-19 “the elephant in the room.” The pandemic is still happening, but sometimes talking about it can make you uncomfortable. This is especially true in places where safety measures have become political issues. But “everyone should be really open and talking about it,” she says. Don’t be afraid to have conversations with parents or with other students.

By asking questions about COVID-19 safety, you can learn more about the science behind the pandemic and how to keep yourself safe. And you can also share information you learn with your friends and family. (Hint: Science News for Students has a big collection of stories to help you out.) The more you know, the better you will be able to protect your community.

Thank your teachers, school staff and other adults who have supported you this year.

Teachers have faced a lot of challenges during the pandemic. They’ve figured out remote learning, then hybrid learning, then returning to classrooms — all while dealing with their own COVID-19 challenges.   

“Educators, they’ve had a God-awful time and had had a lot more put on them,” says Cogan, the school nurse. But “every single person that works in a school has as well.” That includes your school nurses, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitors and more.

But those aren’t the only people who may have been looking out for you. In the rural Maryland school district I investigated, for example, school staff worked with churches and other community spaces to distribute free food. In the Oregon district, the local library stepped up to provide internet and homework space for students. Thank all the many people who made it possible for you to continue learning during the pandemic.

Offer help to your friends who had a hard time last year.

More than 120,000 U.S. kids lost a parent during the pandemic. That statistic comes from researchers in England at Imperial College London. Many other students lost other family or friends. Some students saw their families struggle to pay rent or buy food. All of these losses and struggles take a toll, making it harder to learn when school does reopen.

Are there kids in your class who faced pandemic hardships like these? Ask them how you might be able to help. Even just listening to your friends talk about their family’s challenges may be invaluable for them. You can also ask your school to recognize any losses in your community, like with a moment of silence at an assembly. And if you faced a challenge like this in your own family, remember to be kind to yourself and ask for help when you need it. The school year will bring new challenges for students, parents and teachers alike. By supporting each other, though, we can all make it through these as a community.

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