Serious disease risks in kids have been low throughout the pandemic. And school-age students now can get vaccinated to further reduce their risk of serious disease. The details are important. For example, what did the school’s contact tracing efforts conclude about the likely source of common exposure? Often, when there are infections in a classroom, they may not have resulted from an exposure at school, but rather a social or extracurricular activity that classmates attend.
Generally, cases among exposed contacts in school settings are quite rare. This risk can be reduced if schools implement “test to stay” strategies: Instead of requiring contacts of cases to quarantine, rapid tests are used during what would have been the quarantine period to determine if contacts of cases are safe to attend school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently endorsed this policy.
Hotez: There are not many silver linings in this Omicron wave of infection, but at least it’s now accelerating during a time when children are being sent home for the winter break or holidays. Therefore, K-12 schools and most colleges and universities won’t be in session at a time when infections are at their worst. In January there may be some delayed openings, especially if we are already at the downslope of this new wave and there is added benefit by waiting an extra week or two. But like any new variant, we really won’t know, until we know.
Does Omicron present a larger outdoor risk than Delta? Should children be masked on playgrounds?
Nuzzo: I’ve not seen specific data that Omicron poses an increased risk of outdoor transmission. With any of our safety measures, we have to balance how much protection the measure will add versus the degree of disruption it will cause. The most important place to mask is indoors. Some kids are perfectly happy wearing masks on playgrounds, especially if it’s not too hot. But other children really benefit from having mask breaks.
My children’s school does not make them wear masks during outdoor recess and my children are very grateful to get a break from wearing masks in school all day. I support this. Our family generally doesn’t wear masks when we are outdoors, but we do wear them if we are in crowds.
Can we take children to indoor masked events like the theater? What about places like museums?
Nuzzo: The answer to this question depends on your children’s specific situation and your level of risk tolerance. My children are both vaccinated, so I feel comfortable taking them to museums. If they had underlying health conditions such that I worried about their level of protection from the vaccine or their risk of developing severe illness were they to become infected, I would likely try to avoid to a greater degree crowded, indoor spaces.
Before my children were able to get vaccinated, we were more selective about where we took them and prioritized going to those places that provided social or developmental benefits. I would consider taking them to the science museum, though I would prefer to visit in the summer when community transmission was lower.