Mask to School?: Tips for Families with Kids Returning to Class

Dr. Anu Kalaskar, of Children’s Minnesota, recommends measures for mitigating health risks this fall as kids go back to school
Dr. Anu Kalaskar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Minnesota, encourages parents to vaccinate their kids when the option is available
Dr. Anu Kalaskar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Minnesota, encourages parents to vaccinate their kids when the option is available

Portrait by Bill Bartlett

This interview appears as part of Minnesota Monthly’s Top Doctors feature in the magazine’s Sept/Oct issue.

COVID-19 vaccines have played a central role in moving Minnesotans safely back to daily life. For families with children under 12, instances of transmission and serious illness are lower, but in-person classes this fall still have risks. With new cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant still spreading, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics urge all students and staff to wear masks when they return to classes.

“Sometimes it feels like the rest of America has moved on,” says Dr. Anu Kalaskar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Minnesota. “A lot of vaccinated people are able to get back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but we don’t want to forget that children are becoming one of the more vulnerable populations, especially as we go further into the pandemic and there are more variants. As the virus changes, it’s still unclear how children may be affected going forward.”

Dr. Kalaskar remains “optimistic” about the fall of 2021, especially compared to the fall of 2020, when Minnesota had one of its worst spikes in cases, although the increasing prevalence of the Delta variant may slow progress.

As of late July, nearly 70% of Minnesotans 16 years of age and older had received at least one vaccine dose. Here are some important considerations from Dr. Kalaskar for families as kids wrap up summer and return to school.

Young kids who aren’t vaccinated and their families should still try to maintain all mitigation efforts.

“It gets very tricky, especially when you have different-aged children in the household—some are vaccinated, and some are not. The spread within schools has been mitigated pretty well by mask wearing and social distancing, and it’s really important to continue those measures to protect them.”

There will be an increase in other viruses that weren’t circulating as much before.

“Now that things are returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity, we’ve already seen a spike in the number of cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which is a very common childhood viral illness. It’s not something we typically see a lot of in the summer. It usually starts in the fall and the winter. Kids have been out of school and typical activities. They have not been exposed to other viruses as they usually would at this point, and they may not have had that built up immunity over the past year and a half that they would have otherwise. So, they may be even more vulnerable to viral infections.”

Getting an influenza vaccine has taken on a new importance.

“Regardless of what happens with the ongoing approval of the COVID vaccine, which I would highly recommend for eligible children, influenza vaccines are essential going into the fall. Kids who get infected with multiple viruses at the same time are more likely to feel more sick and have higher risk for hospitalization. The last season was a very, very slow influenza season, and we don’t know what to expect in the fall—with influenza and other viruses.”

Get the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available.

“The hope is that, by fall, the trials for the Pfizer vaccine data will be presented to the FDA for approval in younger age groups. The vast majority of trials are done in adults first, and then it kind of trickles down to kids. Any time there’s a new vaccine, there’s always concerns for safety, especially in children. By the time young children start receiving the vaccine, we’ll have even more data on the safety of the vaccine in older kids and adults and from the trials currently underway. So far, the vaccines have proven themselves to be very safe. We anticipate and hope that that will hold true for younger kids as well.”

Find the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest health guidance for COVID-19 at aap.org

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