Do We Still Tell Schools When Kids Have COVID?

2023 covid protocols at school universal
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There’s never a good time to test positive for COVID. In the case of my family, my son tested positive five days into the new school year.

There was a heat wave in NYC, but out of nowhere, he mentioned that his head felt hot. I took his temp, which was 101. Then I swabbed his nose using the stockpile of rapid tests that (thankfully) had been collecting dust all summer. Positive. Not knowing the COVID protocols in a new school, I did what any mom of a sick kid would do: I tucked him into bed, then emailed the school.

This kicked off a five-day quarantine—and the minor, but mega-feeling, loss of childcare for two working parents—but my son, who is fully vaccinated, was fully recovered and testing negative 48 hours later. (Lucky, I know.) His negative tests for three days straight meant he could return to the classroom mask-free six days after his first symptom, but without that level of progress, he’d have been required to mask for five additional days upon his return. In other words, we followed the same protocol as last year. (It’s worth noting that, unlike previous years, COVID protocols weren’t a talking point ahead of back-to-school—a marker of the progress we’ve made since 2020.)

But this is what struck me and other parents I’ve spoken with who are facing similar circumstances this fall: At what point can we shed the logistical nightmare that is COVID? Have we reached the point where we can treat it like other viral illnesses, such as the flu or a cold? We consulted a pediatric doctor to find out.

About the Expert

Dr. Uzma N. Hasan is the Section Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey. She is also the medical director for the Pediatric Post-COVID CARE (Comprehensive Assessment, Recovery and Evaluation) program and an assistant professor at RWJ-Rutgers Medical School.

1. Yes, Parents Still Need to Test and Report a Positive COVID Case at School

Yes, it’s 2023. Yes, the vaccine is here. But, according to Dr. Hasan, we still have to test, report and quarantine our kids if they experience a positive test result. “Can we treat COVID like any other viral illness, say the common cold? The answer is that we’re still learning, and we are also still seeing severe illness in children and adults,” Dr. Hasan says. “What’s prompting the recommendation of a five-day quarantine as opposed to the flu or RSV all comes down to how long you’re considered contagious, which varies for each virus.”

In other words, COVID’s period of contagion is still unique. Per Dr. Hasan, with RSV, the recommendation for return to school is to be fever-free for 24 hours with symptoms improving at minimal risk to others. The flu is similar: Kids should be fever-free for 24 hours and, pending the advice of your child’s pediatrician, have completed a course of medication like Tamiflu. “With COVID-19, for up to five days after symptoms present, we still see significant spread from one person to another, which is what prompts the decision to keep the more conservative quarantine recommendations for now,” Dr. Hasan says.

2. Mask Wearing Is Also a Necessity Following a Positive Case

This is another point of contention: “My kid is better now; do they really need to mask?” According to Dr. Hasan, while the risk of spread is reduced after the five-day quarantine with COVID, what drives the indoor masking for up to 10 days following your child’s first COVID symptom comes down to one simple fact: You don’t know who your child is seated next to in the classroom. “If there is a compromised child who is going to be vulnerable—say, they’re severely asthmatic or something else—that’s where we want to take those extra precautions given the impact of COVID varies so widely,” Dr. Hasan says.

3. Bottom Line for Parents: COVID at School Is Still Something We Have to Navigate Responsibly

There is still a massive learning curve with COVID, and a lot will continue to change and evolve year to year, says Dr. Hasan. We have to live in the present and, right now, there are still several challenges that are cropping up with COVID that don’t happen with other respiratory viral illnesses. “Things like long-haul COVID or the worry that while one kid may be symptom-free, someone else may end up hospitalized—these are all things that influence COVID protocols and the guidance from the CDC,” according to Dr. Hasan.

For parents, it’s complicated—and overwhelming—especially when the symptoms of RSV, the flu and COVID all overlap. “The best we can continue to do as a community is test, then follow that five-day protocol after notifying the school,” Dr. Hasan explains.

4. Get the New Vaccine

“People ask, ‘What’s the point of the new booster?’ and it’s this: As new strains of the virus continue to circulate, the efficacy of your previous vaccine also wanes over time,” Dr. Hasan explains. “Staying up to date on your COVID vaccine will be your best defense to stay adequately protected when community rates rise.”

Ask a Pediatrician: With the Flu, RSV and COVID Circulating, Should I Let My Kid Do Indoor Activities Right Now?

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