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Kids More Likely to Bring COVID-19 Home When Schools Lack Safety Measures

masked children at school
Safety protocols in school can lower the risk of COVID-19 spread to families.

Key Takeaways

  • Research finds that parents are more likely to report COVID-19 symptoms when their children attend in-person learning.
  • The risk drops when schools follow COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
  • Experts stress the importance of knowing what measures your child's school is implementing.

New research finds that people who live with a child who attends in-person learning have an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The good news is schools can take certain safety measures to lower this risk.

The study, which was published in late April in the journal Science, analyzed nearly 600,000 responses collected between November 2020 and February 2021 from a Facebook-based COVID-19 symptom survey. The researchers found that people who lived with a child who did in-person learning in preschool through 12th grade were about 38% more likely to report having COVID-19 symptoms like a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, compared to those who had a child in remote learning.

The risk seemed to increase with the student’s grade level. While there wasn't a strong link between the risk of COVID-like symptoms in households with children attending in-person pre-K and kindergarten, risk rose steadily as the children in the household were older. Risk levels peaked in families with high schoolers—household members were more than 50% likely to have recently tested positive for COVID-19.

But school safety measures mattered. The researchers specifically asked about 14 different mitigation measures, like mask-wearing and symptom screening, and found that with each safety protocol schools implemented, the risk of developing COVID-19 symptoms dropped by 9%.

The researchers found that most schools implemented at least some COVID-19 safety measures, like mask mandates for teachers, daily screening of students and teachers for symptoms, and limiting extracurricular activities. When schools used seven or more safety protocols, the excess risk of contracting COVID-19 from in-person learning dramatically decreased. The risk completely disappeared when 10 or more mitigation strategies were used.

“There are huge differences in how schools are responding to the pandemic across the country, in part because of lack of a clear understanding about what works and what doesn't,” lead study author Justin Lessler, PhD, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “We wanted to do whatever we could to remedy this situation and learn what we could about how risky in-person schooling actually is, and what we can do to reduce that risk.” 

The Most Important Measures to Follow

While the survey analyzed 14 different COVID-19 mitigation measures, Lessler says the findings suggest the following are the most important for keeping families safe:

  • Daily symptom screening
  • Closing extracurricular activities
  • Teachers wearing masks

“Student masking was also almost universal, and I think is also important,” Lessler says. “However, most measures seemed to make some difference, and having an aggressive program of control with more than these measures seems important.”

What This Means For You

COVID-19 safety precautions in schools are important for parents and their families. Making sure your child's school is doing what it can to limit the spread of COVID-19 is crucial for keeping everyone safe.

How Parents Can Ensure School Safety

Doctors say it’s crucial for parents to ask questions. “The biggest step that parents can take is to be involved and to inquire what their child's school is doing,” Ashanti Woods, MD, a pediatrician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, tells Verywell. “Parents who assume that everything is covered and that all mitigation measures are being met are taking a big chance and potentially missing an opportunity to hold their child's school and school district accountable.”

Danelle Fisher, MD, a pediatrician and Chair of Pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, agrees, telling Verywell that “parents should be checking with schools to make sure they’re following the advice of the local health department.” And, if it doesn’t seem like safety protocols are being followed, Fisher recommends that parents talk to a school administrator.  

Woods suggests that parents also talk to their children about school safety measures at home. “Parents can continue to reinforce proper hand hygiene, mask-wearing, and asking what supplies, if any, the school or daycare may need to continue practicing all mitigation measures," he says.

Doctors stress the importance of making sure that schools follow COVID-19 safety protocols. “When kids get COVID-19, they usually don’t seem to have as severe of an infection,” Fisher says. “But in adults, you just don’t know that they’re not going to have a bad response. The parent could die from it.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Lessler J, Grabowski MK, Grantz KH, et al. Household COVID-19 risk and in-person schoolingScience. April 29, 2021. doi: 10.1126/science.abh2939.