OPINION

Is my child safe? What parents should know about delta variant as kids return to school

Here are four questions to ask educators on COVID-19 safety

Returning to school in Miramar, Fla., on Aug. 16, 2021.
Dr. Rajiv J. Shah
Opinion contributor

At a time when parents should be searching for the perfect lunchbox and picking out their children’s first day of school outfits, many are instead worried about skyrocketing COVID-19 infections in children due to the delta variant.

Pediatric infections have surged  – more than 121,000 COVID-19 cases in children were added in the past week. And as 1,900 children were hospitalized on Saturday, a record for the pandemic, pediatric hospitals in many areas are full or overstretched.

As the father of three school-age children, I’m anxious as well, even after spending much of the past year as president of the Rockefeller Foundation working with researchers, educators, physicians and public health professionals to find ways to get children safely back in the classroom.

But as we’ve all learned during this pandemic, it’s best to focus on the data and science. Based on what we’ve learned, including from successful pilot programs over the past year, all American public schools can, with the right steps, reopen safely, even with the latest delta surge.

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.

Unfortunately, the data also makes clear that too few parents know what their schools are planning or how to advocate for what’s needed.

A recent RAND Corporation survey, commissioned by The Rockefeller Foundation, found that 84% of American parents are sending their children back to the classroom. Those mothers and fathers see what the studies show: Every student has fallen behind during the pandemic, with the steepest setbacks among the most vulnerable.

As the nation’s working parents try to return to the office, school closures – even for a couple weeks at a time – will prove disruptive and costly, particularly for mothers. But parents also want classroom mitigation measures against COVID-19, especially adequate ventilation and vaccinations for teachers.

Unfortunately, only 27% of American parents know what precautions are in place at their children’s schools, and 60% want more information.

Ask about vaccinations and masks

To help, here are the four questions every parent should ask, and get answers to, in the weeks ahead:

How is your school handling vaccinations? Vaccination is the best way to protect people from COVID-19 and limit its spread. School personnel need to be vaccinated, but more than 10% of educators and school staff still are not.

Schools must require teacher vaccinations for in-person instruction – and fortunately educators are now supportive. Parents should also get vaccinated to protect their children, and get their children vaccinated when cleared for their age group.

School and district leaders can work with health departments and care providers to ensure every child has equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations and the other immunizations required for attendance.

Is your school requiring masks for children and adults? Masks are cheap, widely available and effective at preventing infection in schools and out. When all Americans were unvaccinated last year, it was masking that helped bend the curve and keep more people from getting sick, reducing transmission by up to 70%.

Today, with so many children unvaccinated, masks are the best way to keep them safe and in class. Despite the politics around masking, parents can still mask their children and work with school administrators and local officials to ensure their classmates and instructors are masked as well.

Advocate for regular testing

Is your school testing regularly? As we saw in many places last year, routine testing can reduce, or even eliminate, the risk of COVID-19 in schools. Unlike last year, the United States has the production and processing capacity to conduct weekly testing in all schools.

By September, the nation will be producing 590 million tests per month. Furthermore, Congress allocated $12 billion for school testing, some of which is still available.

Indeed, with federal resources and private support, schools can set up regular testing quickly, in some cases in as little as 10 days.

Is your child’s school being smart about ventilation and distancing? COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, and better air flow and lower density decrease the risks of infection.

Many schools have done this work but haven’t publicized it. For those still waiting, Congress has allocated billions for ventilation improvements, and many of the upgrades – including portable air filters, window and door repairs, and fans – are inexpensive and easy enough to install by September.

Dr. Rajiv J. Shah is president of The Rockefeller Foundation and the former USAID administrator of the Obama administration.

Some schools are also moving assemblies outside and alternating cafeteria timing. Such measures alone might not be enough against delta, but they are useful alongside others.

Getting students back in the classroom is best for them, it’s best for all of us parents and, in the end, it’s best for our communities and the country.

Still, a parent rarely stops worrying about their children, and a pandemic is no time to expect them to start. By asking these questions – and ensuring they are answered affirmatively by school administrators and local officials – parents can send their children off to school with one fewer reason for anxiety.

Dr. Rajiv J. Shah is president of The Rockefeller Foundation and the former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter: @rajshah