How Can I Keep My Child COVID-Safer at School?

In-person learning can be safe enough for kids — as long as we take precautions.

Liz Ruark
Three children in classroom wearing masks

December 2022: Whenever you test yourself for COVID at home — whether you’re positive or negative — you should report your result. The results are kept private and anonymous. Every test that gets reported helps public health teams better understand where outbreaks are happening, so they can get help to people who need it.

August 2022: This post has been updated to reflect changes in CDC and FDA guidelines.

When a COVID-19 surge hits, it’s the first question on any parent’s mind: Will my kid be safe at school? As with so much that involves COVID-19, the answer isn’t simple. But over the years that the virus has been with us, we’ve learned a few things. Yes, in-person learning absolutely can be safe enough for kids — and school staff — as long as the right steps are taken. Here’s what those steps are, and how you can tell that they’re working.

Keep Up to Date on Vaccines

Vaccination is always the first step in any COVID-19 safety plan. The vaccines continue to be hugely successful at keeping people from getting seriously ill or dying from the virus. Keeping yourself and your children up to date on booster shots provides the best protection and makes it the least likely that your kids will get infected. The more people who are vaccinated at your child’s school, the safer your child will be from infection.

Mask When You Need To

According to CDC guidelines, all children and adults should mask indoors at school when COVID-19 community levels are high. If your family is more COVID-conservative, you can always decide to have your children mask at school if levels are lower, too. While they won’t get as much protection as they would if everyone in the class was masked, wearing a mask still helps. And remember, masks don’t just protect your kids from COVID-19 - they help prevent other respiratory viruses like the flu, too.

Because COVID-19 variants are so easy to catch now, cloth masks alone no longer provide as much protection as you want - though they’re still better than no mask at all. Instead, choose high-quality KN95, KF94, or N95 masks. They filter out a lot more of the tiny bits of airborne moisture called aerosols, which spread the virus. Make sure your children’s masks fit well, without gaps, and are comfortable enough to wear all day.

Make Air Quality a Priority

We now know that the virus spreads mostly through the air, when people breathe in virus-carrying aerosols that infected people have breathed out. The more virus there is in the air around you, the more likely you are to get infected. Schools can keep the air cleaner by bringing more fresh air in where possible and by using HEPA filters and UVGI air cleaners in places where that isn’t feasible. (Air cleaners don’t have to be expensive. An effective air cleaner called a Corsi-Rosenthal box can be made with off-the-shelf items from your local hardware store — and it’s simple enough for high-school students to construct.) On school buses, keeping at least two windows open in both the front and the back of the bus helps fresh air to flow through.

Keep Tabs With Tests

When COVID-19 levels start to rise in your area, you can find out if your school is encouraging vaccination, requiring masks, and keeping the indoor air as clean as possible. But how do you know whether it’s all working? That’s where tests come in.

Screening testing — testing people who don’t have symptoms — can help catch COVID cases before they have a chance to cause an outbreak. Screening testing can also provide valuable peace of mind for families, students, and staff members.

The CDC suggests screening students and adults who are participating in high-risk activities such as close-contact sports, band, singing, and theater whenever COVID-19 community levels are high. The Workplace Testing Planner can help your school find out how frequently it needs to screen in order to make an outbreak less likely. If levels are high, the CDC also suggests school-wide screening at key times of the year, such as when students are returning from break or when a large gathering like prom is coming up. 

Watch the “Weather"

Sadly, this virus isn’t going away. We’re all going to have to learn to live our lives in a world that includes COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless — and it doesn’t mean that we have to wear masks forever. Just as you wouldn’t dress your kid in a winter coat on a bright, warm spring day, protection against COVID in school becomes less important when virus levels are low. So keep an eye on the COVID “weather” just as you would the weather in the sky — and make sure that your kid and their school are prepared for a rainy day.