I have two kids ages 8 and 5 who, after a dismal 2020, were thrilled to start having playdates again this summer. My husband and I are both vaccinated but now with the Delta variant on the rise, we’re questioning whether or not we should continue to allow them to have their friends over. What should we do?
For a hot minute there, it seemed like there was some light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Cases were declining overall as vaccine uptake increased, restrictions were being lifted and people were starting to resume their normal activities. But then, Delta entered the chat. As we learn more about this highly transmissible variant, more children are testing positive, so it is crucial to continue mitigation processes to control spread and decrease the risk of exposure, particularly when it comes to those who are unvaccinated. And right now, that vulnerable population is children under the age of 12.
A question I’ve been getting a lot lately is, “how is the Delta variant different when it comes to kids?” The short answer is that while the Delta variant is unfortunately more transmissible for everyone—including children—at this point it does not appear to be causing more severe disease. That being said, with more people traveling and gathering, and more kids back to sports and other activities, the virus is infecting that vulnerable population: our kids. According to recent reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, there were over 100,000 new cases in children under the age of 12 during one week in mid-August.
With all that in mind, we need to be really careful when it comes to playdates and unvaccinated children. As frustrating as it is, we need to continue practicing the known safety measures in order to mitigate spread and decrease the likelihood that more concerning variants will emerge.
So let’s dial back to “basics” and remember the precautions we all took at the start of the pandemic. Putting these in place while still allowing kids to socialize and spend some important peer-to-peer time is a reasonable balance of risk management in the current climate.
Here are a few recommendations to consider:
Lay the foundation
Have a conversation with the other parents to establish some “ground rules” so everyone feels comfortable going into the experience. Will everyone over two years old wear a mask inside? Are the adults and anyone eligible over 12 years old vaccinated? Communication and expectation alignment is important for everyone.
Keep in mind that your location matters. If you live in an area where cases are high and/or increased cases are currently being reported, it’s a good idea to be extra cautious and agree that everyone (vaccinated parents included) stays outdoors, possibly even masked. Additionally, if you or someone in your household has recently traveled to a location that is experiencing a spike in cases, let the other parents know ahead of time to ensure everyone is comfortable and/or hold off on making playdate plans until you’ve allowed 10 to 14 days to pass after your return.
Outdoor play is best
I recommend sticking to outdoor playdates as much as possible while the weather is still warm. It’s a simple way to decrease risk significantly. Kids will also receive the added bonus of physical activity if outside with more space to run around, which helps both physical and mental health. If an indoor playdate is a must, I would advise both you and the other parent(s) agree that you will take the necessary precautions including masking, frequent handwashing, and opening windows and doors to allow for proper ventilation if possible.
Proper fitting masks
Whether indoors or outdoors, a proper fitting mask is key. Masks should fit snugly over your child’s nose and mouth without any gaps. The CDC guidance also suggests that cloth masks, which are most comfortable for outdoor masking, should be made with multiple layers of tightly woven, breathable fabric. Single layers aren’t enough; nor is any mask with a valve.
Distance and hand hygiene
Some simple “basics” to consider for both outdoor or indoor playdates include being mindful of keeping your distance and taking breaks for frequent hand washing or sanitizing. When washing hands remember to sing the ABC song twice while scrubbing all parts of the hand, including fingers and under the nails, to get the maximum benefit.
Short, structured playdates
Don’t forget about potential emotional challenges that some children may be experiencing right now; they may actually have anxiety about a playdate after not having consistent time with peers in school or daycare throughout the last year. I recommend short, structured playdates in which a fun activity is planned. Keeping it brief and having a “plan” can minimize any potentially uncomfortable moments as kids ease back into social situations.
The bottom line
There are no guarantees in this pandemic but following the guidelines above will help mitigate the risks while allowing kids to socialize and spend time with their friends.
One more thing to note: There’s a wide spectrum of parental comfort levels right now with regard to playdates; remember that some of us are risk takers and some are risk averse. Let’s give each other a lot of grace right now in terms of where we may lie individually on the risk scale, but also be very aware of the facts about the current state of the pandemic and all do what we can to protect our own kids, and other people’s kids as well, to the very best of our ability.
Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.