Staying safe from COVID-19 while heading back to school in person

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PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — After a year of hybrid and remote learning, many students and their caregivers are ready to get back to in-person education this upcoming school year. Wearing masks and getting vaccinated are two ways experts say students can stay safe and healthy when they’re back in the classroom.

“Our goal — as a parent myself — is to have our children be back in school with in-person learning as much as possible,” Dr. Christopher Russo, director of pediatrics at WellSpan Health, said.

“I do think that…what we learned through the pandemic is that some mitigation strategies that are sensible and reasonable, that don’t interfere with a child’s ability to learn, do make sense, and we should be adopting those things,” Russo said.

The CDC says that students, teachers, staff, and visitors should mask up in schools, regardless of vaccination status. In Pennsylvania, it is up to individual districts to determine their masking policies.

Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said in an email statement, “The administration is not considering reinstating a statewide mandate at this time; however, we recommend Pennsylvanians, including schools, follow CDC guidance.” Schools are allowed to adopt stricter COVID-19 prevention strategies than the state regulates, Barton noted.

Russo said wearing masks in crowded settings, like in the hallways between classes, could be one way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. However, he says that students sitting in spaced-out desks or a vaccinated teacher speaking at the front of the classroom a safe distance away from the students may be able to safely ditch the mask.

Masks have helped prevent other illnesses like colds and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, and Russo noted that wearing masks in school could help mitigate the spread of diseases that commonly circulate through schools.

Although students face pressure to attend school in person every day, Russo urges them to stay home if they feel unwell or have a fever. Wearing a mask to school can also help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, and Russo encourages students, caregivers, and teachers to discourage stigma around masking.

“If a parent or a child wishes to wear a mask, that is fine, and we should really be encouraging that,” Russo said.

For students ages 12 and older, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is another way to stay healthy during the school year.

While younger individuals tend to experience less severe COVID-19 cases than older people, Russo said that WellSpan has treated children dealing with active coronavirus cases and other, more lasting impacts of the virus.

WellSpan has also been giving vaccines to adolescents ages 12-18 daily, Russo said. Although the vaccination rate for youth is going up, some experts worry that it is still significantly lower than the vaccination rate for the overall population as kids get ready to re-enter classrooms.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19, especially as students head back to school,” Barton wrote.

“The vaccine has undergone rigorous trials, it’s been studied in thousands and thousands of children. We have no reason to believe that it is unsafe for children at this time, and the side effects have really been very minimal,” Russo said.

Russo especially encourages the vaccination for youth with underlying risk factors, such as obesity, asthma, or type 1 diabetes, that increase the likelihood of serious illness from COVID-19.

Children under 18 years old need parent or guardian consent to get the vaccine. Russo said that teens who want to get vaccinated but have a hesitant caregiver can ask their family members to speak with a healthcare professional or another parent of a vaccinated teenager to get more information.

Pennsylvania schools do not currently require students to get COVID-19 vaccines, but the state does require several other immunizations. Russo is not expecting the coronavirus vaccine to become a requirement for the 2021-2022 school year, and he noted that general vaccination rates and virus variants could influence whether it is ever required.

When abc27 asked the DOH about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for school students, Barton responded, “The department strongly suggests eligible Pennsylvanians 12 and older receive safe and effective vaccines available in order to best prevent contracting and spreading the virus.”

Ultimately, Russo understands that caregivers are doing their best to keep their children healthy and happy. “I tell parents, you know, this is not placing your child in a bubble and protecting them from anything that could possibly happen, but doing what is sensible,” Russo said.

“Understandably, a lot of parents are fearful, and I always like to reassure parents and say, ‘You’ve got this. Do what’s sensible, do what you know is right,’ which is we just want to protect our children and give them as normal a life as possible, understanding that there are sensible mitigation efforts that we do need to take into consideration,” Ruso said.

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