CNN: The question on the minds of a lot of parents and caregivers is masks. Are you going to take your kids back to school with masks?
Dr. Lina Wen: No, although I respect other parents and caregivers who make a different decision than we do based on how they see the risk of Covid-19 versus the downside of hiding their children.
I also think it is reasonable for parents and caregivers to make different risk calculations. Children are already at low risk of developing serious illness from Covid-19. Vaccination also reduces this risk. In addition, the variants currently circulating are so infectious that it is difficult to avoid infection. Some families may decide that they no longer prioritize avoiding infection anymore, and therefore choose not to hide their children in school.
This is what my family decided. Our views have changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic, when much was unknown about the impact of Covid-19 on children. At the time, we followed very strict precautions, including hiding masks at all times indoors and only bonding with others outdoors. For us, the turning point was after Omicron took control, because it became very difficult to avoid Covid-19 despite the precautions. Vaccinating our children also gave us more reassurance that we could replace the mask with the protection that vaccination provides. We know that our children can still contract Covid-19, but the risk of severe disease is very low.
There is also the question of the perceived cost of hiding our children. Our children’s school does not require masks and based on our conversations with other families, very few parents will choose to hide their children. My nearly 5-year-old son, who is starting kindergarten, has speech delays that have improved since his schools chose to use the mask in the spring. My 2-year-old son, who is just starting preschool, doesn’t wear masks anyway. For us, the benefit of asking our kids the mask doesn’t outweigh the downside right now. That could change if a more serious variant emerges in the future.
CNN: Are there circumstances in which you’d advise parents and caregivers to hide their children at school?
Wen: It all comes down to how much the family wants to avoid Covid-19. Suppose there is a medically vulnerable member of the family who could become very ill if they contract the coronavirus. It makes sense for everyone in that family to take extra care not to infect that person.
Families can also decide to wear masks before visiting vulnerable loved ones. For example, if an immunocompromised grandfather was to come to stay for a week, the children could hide in school in the week before and during the visit. I also advise the children to do a quick test just before Grandpa arrives, and for everyone – including adults – to avoid indoor gatherings for the week before and during the visit.
CNN: Speaking of testing, how often should families test their children?
Wen: Some schools may have a regular test rhythm or random test protocol to assess the level of Covid-19 in the students’ body. Others may only ask that children be tested if they have symptoms or have a known exposure. Again, how much families want their children tested depends on the degree to which they want to avoid the coronavirus. Many families see Covid-19 as they would any other viral illness, while some remain very cautious to try to avoid it for a number of reasons, including the unknown future risk of prolonged Covid.
CNN: Should parents and caregivers back out of any curricula or play dates for their children?
Wen: Any decision-making must balance the desire to avoid Covid-19 against the downside of keeping children away from activities they might enjoy. Given the risk account for our family, I don’t hold back from my children’s activities. My son plays football, and this sometimes happens indoors. My daughter is in a music class with a lot of singing, which is mostly indoors. We continue to play dates, both outdoors and indoors.
By the way, this does not mean that my family does not follow any precautions. My husband and I wear masks in airports and trains. We don’t take our kids to the aquarium or science center when it’s too crowded, so many people huddle together. We’re not trying to catch Covid-19 – but we’re also not going to change our lives as we have done in most cases of a pandemic to try to avoid it. We fully understand if other parents may decide to be more careful and stick to outdoor activities in the first place.
CNN: What happens if kids get Covid-19 – how long do they have to stay out of school? What if a member of his family gets Covid?
Some schools have different protocols for this, so be sure to check with your school to make sure you’re following their rules.
CNN: Should families vaccinate their children if they haven’t already been vaccinated?