By Liz Pray and Michael Barsotti
Like many families, we have been looking forward to the day our children could return to school and enjoy the in-person learning and social opportunities they have missed out on during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated many disparities and being back in school doesn’t just mean a return to in-person academic learning.
For children, being in school also supports healthy socialization and development, and provides access to nutritious food, mental health care, and school nurse support in managing chronic conditions. Without these daily interactions and supports, children and adolescents have fallen behind academically and many have faced serious physical and mental health crises.
As we entered summer and case rates were declining while vaccination rates increased, we had hope that the 2021-2022 school year would look closer to “normal.” But as the delta variant of COVID-19 is on the rise in communities throughout the state, we are reminded that while it is important for children to be back in school, we will need to recommit to sound infection prevention measures if we hope to keep school in session.
We can all play a part to keep Washington’s children safe, especially those children under age 12 who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Delta’s increased transmissibility requires us to continue to wear masks and social distance in our communities. This will help reduce case rates and prevent outbreaks – essential measures if we have any hope of keeping schools open for our children.
In addition, schools must be vigilant about adhering to the layers of prevention set forth by the Washington State Department of Health guidance, including universal masking in schools for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status; improved ventilation; social distancing; frequent hand-washing; and keeping sick children home. This guidance aligns with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Association of School Nurses.
We have evidence from this past spring that these measures work. Outbreaks did occur in our schools when in-person and hybrid learning resumed, but they were primarily limited to small numbers of children – often just two or three. A study of Georgia elementary schools this spring found that those with a mask requirement for teachers and staff had 37% fewer cases of COVID-19, and we have abundant evidence that universal masking dramatically reduces virus transmission in other settings.
We have already seen what can happen when communities stray from that guidance, as school districts that have already begun their school year in parts of the southern U.S. are dealing with outbreaks and quarantines. With the more transmissible delta variant, the U.S. is seeing a steep rise in COVID-19 among children – an upsurge which can be stopped with strong, common sense infection prevention strategies like vaccinating 12- to 18-year-olds and masking in public settings.
As kids head back into full classrooms this fall, we must continue to ensure that school nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers have the support they need to manage pandemic-exacerbated challenges: chronic conditions, a mental health crisis, and contact tracing when outbreaks do occur. The Legislature must invest in these positions to ensure every school building has a nurse, a counselor, a psychologist and a social worker.
Washington’s children must be in school this year. We know what we need to do to keep them as safe and healthy as possible. Our students, teachers, school nurses, staff and parents are counting on all of us. We urge you to do your part to help.
Liz Pray, MSN-Ed, RN, NCSN is a school nurse and president of the School Nurse Organization of Washington. Michael Barsotti is president of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a neonatologist and chief administrative officer at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital.
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