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California students are going back to school. We answer parents’ most pressing questions

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Back-to-school 2021 marks the third academic year the education of California’s 6 million children has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The opening of schools this month — including the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday — is unfolding under the shadow of the surging Delta variant, supplanting much of the joy and relief families anticipated with new worries about masks, positive coronavirus tests, illness, vaccines, quarantines and outbreaks.

We are here to answer your questions.

Jump to: Masks | Vaccines | Testing | Cases and outbreaks | Online learning

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What are the key protocols that must be in place as schools reopen in California?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its updated recommendations for K-12 schools July 19. The guidance is meant to provide a path to safe in-person instruction while minimizing missed school days. It suggests universal masking in schools, targeted quarantine practices, and access to a robust coronavirus testing program.

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Above all, the CDC, the state of California and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health stress vaccination for all eligible individuals and masking in classrooms and school buildings as the most effective methods to prevent in-school transmission of the coronavirus.

Here are the basics you should expect to see at school:

  • California has mandated masks for all K-12 students when indoors with a few exceptions, which are intended to be rare and not simply based on parent and student preference or discomfort. The Los Angeles Unified School District also requires masking outdoors.
  • California teachers and school staff must be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing — and some districts, including L.A. Unified and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, have enacted stricter vaccine mandates.
  • Although neither the state nor the CDC require physical distancing, schools are urged to keep students distanced as much as possible. When masks are not being used, such as when students are eating or drinking, physical distancing becomes more important, even essential, in the view of some experts.
  • Recommendations also call on schools to optimize ventilation in indoor spaces. Ideally, this means your school has installed high-grade MERV-13 filters on HVAC systems, although not all HVAC units can work effectively with these filters. Portable air purifiers also are being used in some cases. Even just opening one or more windows helps with ventilation.
  • Facilities are supposed to be cleaned frequently.
  • Increased hand-washing is expected.
  • There will be limited or no sharing of school supplies.

These “layers” of safety, as officials call the measures, go a long way toward making schools safe, experts say.

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Where’s the best place to look for specific information about individual schools?

School districts around California have the authority to set their own policies for their own schools, provided state and local health department requirements are met. This means your school district could have rules that are stricter than the state’s. All school districts are required by the state to post detailed safety plans on their websites, which is where you can find information specific to your school district and campus. Every school district in California was required to submit its plan to the state.

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What is the state mask mandate? How is it enforced?

The state requires masking indoors; however, mask enforcement on campus is left to schools. The California Department of Public Health’s mask rules for schools are as follows:

  • Masks are optional outdoors.
  • K-12 students are required to mask indoors (with exemptions for children younger than 2 or those who have a medical condition).
  • Exempted individuals are expected to wear a nonrestrictive alternative such as a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge.

Local educators are enacting a range of consequences for students who don’t follow the rules — such as issuing warnings or even barring them from campus. A few have suggested they may not enforce the order because they don’t believe it’s needed. Students, for the most part, appear not to be fazed by the rule and have said that they mainly are glad to be back at school with their friends.

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L.A. Unified has a stricter policy than the state and is requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors and outdoors. Children older than 2 are required to have a mask on at all times while on school property, except while eating or drinking.

Because masks have to be removed, eating and drinking should take place outside whenever possible, with social distancing.

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Should kids wear N95 masks?

That’s not necessary. Disposable surgical masks or cloth masks with at least two layers are fine, experts say.

“The best mask is one the child will keep on,” said Dr. Sara Bode, a pediatrician who directs school health services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics’ COVID-19 guidance for schools.

It might make sense for students to pack more than one mask because masks can get dirty or soiled. One untimely sneeze could do it. Keep in mind that masks come in many forms. Some children find the ear loops uncomfortable and prefer tie-on masks. Rubber frames can be inserted to make breathing more comfortable.

Also, schools are supposed to have extra masks available, even on school buses. If they don’t, parents should speak up.

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Should parents sanitize book bags and other items when kids come home from school?

No. “At first, it looked like a virus that would spread on surfaces,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “But now we know that it is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets.”

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What about indoor activities like choir and band? Should parents discourage kids from participating?

No. But the most important way to keep things safe is for such activities to take place outside, with physical distancing. Schools figured out safe ways to offer these activities last year, and can do so again this year, the pediatrician Bode said. In these situations, it’s important that schools create layers of risk protection, she said.

Special masks for singers fit tightly around the face but bow out to leave more room for children to project their voices, she said. Likewise, there are masks with openings for band members’ mouths and also covers to catch droplets that might escape from the open ends of instruments.

Risk factors are difficult to evaluate in school settings, but rising numbers are likely to raise concerns for some.

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Does California require COVID-19 vaccines for eligible students?

No, not currently for K-12 students. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Public health officials, however, continually stress the importance of vaccinating eligible children — especially now with the highly infectious Delta variant.

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Are vaccines required for teachers and school staff?

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that proof of vaccination or regular testing would be required for all school employees — a policy that some school districts have already independently put in place. Some 1,000 public school districts as well as private schools will be affected by the order, which is set to take effect Thursday and gives schools until Oct. 15 to comply fully.

In Los Angeles Unified, all teachers and staff have been ordered to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he believed vaccinations should be required for all teachers. And the top leaders of some teachers unions, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, indicated they would support vaccine mandates provided they were carried out with fairness and sensitivity.

Weingarten said she expects to see more school districts adopting a vaccine mandate or a policy that requires employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing. In L.A. County, more than two-thirds of school district employees have been vaccinated in most districts that have provided estimates, according to the L.A. County Office of Education.

The LAUSD order is stricter than a state mandate that school staff be either vaccinated or regularly tested for coronavirus

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What’s the risk for unvaccinated kids, and what’s the latest on pediatric infections?

Unvaccinated children are at risk of contracting a coronavirus infection, which, if symptoms develop, would be classified as COVID-19. And although severe illness can occur among infected children, it is rare.

Other risks include multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, an extremely rare, potentially fatal, condition that can occur after a coronavirus infection. So-called long COVID — after-effects of illness — can persist for weeks or months among small numbers of children, just as with adults.

The possibility of infection has become a growing back-to-school concern.

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Because Delta is so highly transmissible, “you will see more children likely get infected,” Fauci said at a recent briefing. And “even though the percentage is small — a certain percentage of children will require hospitalization.”

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that newly reported cases among children rose by 4% over a two-week period beginning July 22 and ending on Aug. 5.

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What about pediatric hospitalizations?

Children are being newly hospitalized for COVID-19 at a record rate in the United States, with numbers surging since the beginning of July as the Delta variant has overtaken the nation. But that national boom has been driven largely by a few states, such as Florida, Texas and Georgia, and the numbers in California have been less dire.

While there has been a rebound in recent weeks in California, rates of new hospitalizations for COVID-19 among kids and teens age 17 and younger have not surged as high as last winter.

Experts say California is likely faring better because of relatively higher vaccination rates. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines, but they can be better protected from COVID-19 if teenagers and adults around them are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Despite the upward trends, most health and education experts are encouraging parents to send the vast majority of students back to campus — provided that local schools are being operated in a safe manner. Relatively small health risks must be balanced against risks that arise from academic setbacks and social isolation.

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Is the Delta variant worse for children than previous variants?

Delta is much more transmissible than other strains, which means it can spread more quickly and affect more people, experts say.

“The increase in number of pediatric cases has mirrored the dominance of the Delta variant,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Kids are very much at risk of this variant.”

The variant’s success may have to do with its ease of spread — but it may also reflect a “decay in the use of public health prevention measures that we know work,” Milstone said, pointing to masking and physical distancing as two examples.

Most children get relatively mild symptoms, but a small share of them do develop more severe disease that may require hospitalization. One possible reason we’re seeing an increase in hospitalized children: The more contagious Delta variant is simply reaching more kids, including more of those at risk of serious illness.

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It’s too soon to say whether the Delta variant causes children with COVID-19 to become sicker than they’d be with other strains, Milstone added.

“It is not clear yet if a) the Delta variant is more severe in kids or if b) more kids are getting sick and thus we are seeing complications at a higher frequency,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, the best course of action is to protect kids from becoming infected with the coronavirus in the first place.

“We still do not know what long-term complications kids might suffer from this infection,” Milstone said. “The safest approach is to protect your child from getting COVID.”

There is no definitive evidence that children are suffering greater severity of disease from the Delta variant, Fauci said, although it remains a possibility.

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What’s happening at colleges with vaccine mandates?

California State University and the University of California announced that vaccinations were required for all students and staff, while allowing for medical and religious exemptions. In such cases, regular testing would be required.

The state’s 116 community colleges are allowed to independently decide whether to impose a mandate. The Los Angeles Community College District and Long Beach Community College District will require either proof of vaccination or regular testing.

Some private schools in California such as USC and Loyola Marymount have also mandated vaccinations for students and employees.

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What do we know now about when children under 12 will be eligible for vaccinations?

Trials for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine are underway for children ages 5 to 11, but the timeline for when the vaccine gets approved for that age group and younger is unclear.

Those ages 12 through 17 are eligible, but their numbers have lagged. According to the CDC, roughly 31% of eligible 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated; nearly 42% of 16- to 17-year-olds are.

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What should I expect when it comes to coronavirus testing at schools?

Billions of dollars are available to help California schools’ testing programs through emergency relief funds and grants.

Health agencies offer broad guidance on how often coronavirus testing should be conducted at schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites it as a key tool in keeping campuses safe.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that all California school employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to a weekly test proving they are not infected with the coronavirus. Otherwise, California guidelines recommend but do not require school-based coronavirus testing for everyone on campus, and school districts are responsible for determining who to test and how often.

Districts across California have chosen a range of testing strategies, including voluntary testing and random testing of a certain percentage of staff and students.

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What about the L.A. Unified coronavirus testing program?

The Los Angeles Unified School District is operating the largest school district-based coronavirus school testing program in the nation. All students and staff receive a nasal swab test — though saliva tests also will be available. The district’s program relies primarily on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and parents can expect results within 36 hours.

Stationary sites will be available for testing, and mobile teams will be deployed to schools every week once school begins on Aug. 16. Parents don’t have to make appointments for testing that will take place during the school day, according to LAUSD guidance.

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Can a parent opt their child out of school-based testing?

Each school district has developed its own rules, and there is no universal state policy. If a school district mandates testing for students and a parent wants to opt out, online schooling options are available.

California’s first-in-the-nation vaccine requirement for schools: What you need to know

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What happens when a student tests positive at school?

Students who test positive for the coronavirus upon school entry will be given a surgical mask and accompanied to an isolation space until they can return home, according to L.A. County Department of Public Health policy.

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Infected individuals must self-isolate. Close contacts who are not vaccinated must quarantine for up to 10 days, while it’s recommended that vaccinated individuals who have been exposed be tested for coronavirus infection.

Institutions must report all coronavirus cases to the county health department, and county health officials will perform “ contact tracing.

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What are parents entitled to know about positive cases at their school?

Following confirmation of a positive case, Los Angeles County health officials say they will be aggressive about contact tracing. There is some uncertainty about who will be notified about exposures. Generally, those who may have been exposed to the infected person will receive direct communication.

“If your child or you have an exposure, you will be notified that you had an exposure. ... You will get notified either by us or by the school administration,” L.A. County Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer said in a recent town hall meeting.

The definition of a “close contact” has been unclear to many parents. Early on, the definition was based on the length of time a person was exposed to an infected individual. But now the situation has become more complicated: Were both people wearing masks? Was the exposure indoors or outdoors? Were either of them vaccinated?

In cases of notification, parents should not expect to learn the identity of the infected individual, as schools can’t provide medical information or records about another person.

This lack of clarity appears to be at least partly intentional — to give authorities flexibility in how to best handle individual situations in consultation with local public health authorities.

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What should I do if my child is exposed at school?

Health experts recommend that unvaccinated individuals who have been exposed to the coronavirus quarantine for up to 10 days. It’s recommended that vaccinated individuals who have been exposed be tested for the virus.

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Will classrooms or schools be closed by outbreaks?

A cluster of three or more potentially linked cases at one school over 14 days could represent an outbreak and could lead to having a group of students or even a class quarantine at home. Decisions on how a school handles an outbreak will be made in concert with local public health authorities.

Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director, said the closure of an entire school was unlikely. What could be more likely, she said, is that students in a classroom where a cluster of cases has originated — or a group of those students — may need to quarantine for 10 days.

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Schools are expected to provide ongoing academic support for students while they are at home.

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Does every school district have to offer online learning? How does it differ from last year?

Yes. A recent California law requires school districts to offer independent study as an educational option for the 2021-22 school year for students.

Parents should know that the “distance learning” or “hybrid learning” practices of last year with their child’s teacher are no longer available.

Independent study requires a written master agreement signed by the student, parent or guardian, and the supervising teacher. Within the agreement, school districts have to define what level of educational progress a student has to meet to remain in the program.

The independent study program varies by school district and by grade: Elementary school students have a different schedule than middle and high school students.

Generally, students will have teacher-led live instruction and then work independently on assignments. In this learning option, attendance is based on work completion. If a student doesn’t participate in live instruction, complete assignments, and isn’t making adequate progress in this virtual classroom, the supervising teacher will convene an evaluation conference with the student’s parent or guardian to determine whether the student must return to in-person instruction.

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Can a parent switch their child to online learning at any time? How?

Yes. There is an obligation under state law for school districts to offer independent study as an option. Check with your district for instructions on how to enroll.



About this article

Kaiser Health News contributed to this report.
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