The widespread availability of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines means students, parents and teachers can look forward to a school year that’s closer to normal. While there’s reason for optimism with schools resuming in-person instruction and extracurricular activities, the full return to pre-pandemic normalcy will likely take more time.
“We don't know yet what the beginning of school is going to look like,” says Sarah Bosslet, MD, a pediatrician with Riley Physicians. “In terms of masking and social distancing—especially for younger kids who aren’t able to be vaccinated yet—things may look similar at first. We expect there will be incremental changes throughout the school year, as more people get vaccinated and the number of cases continues to decline.”
Bosslet says this is especially true for Indiana, one of the earliest states returning to school following summer break. With some Hoosier school systems starting class in mid- to late July, schools are working hard to take the updated back-to-school guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this month and implement it in a way that makes the most sense for their school community. Depending on vaccination rates, COVID-19 infection rates and the physical facilities of a particular school, control measures may vary widely across the state at the beginning of the school year.
Vaccination will continue to play a key role in how soon school can safely return to normal. Currently, everyone over the age of 12 is eligible to receive a vaccine.
“Besides being protected against COVID-19, children and teens 12 and older who are vaccinated don’t have to quarantine; if they’re exposed to the virus and remain asymptomatic, they can continue to socialize with their friends and participate in clubs, sports and other activities,” Bosslet says. “Based on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, we’re strongly encouraging parents to get their eligible children vaccinated—and to get vaccinated themselves—to ensure a back-to-school experience that’s as normal as possible.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC both recommend COVID-19 vaccination for all children and teens age 12 and older. Additional information about COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens is available from the CDC.
"While children don’t have as high a rate of severe illness from COVID compared to adults, it does happen," Bosslet says. "More commonly, children can experience mild to moderate symptoms like loss of taste and smell, which can impact quality of life. There’s also the risk of spreading the virus to others and additional time away from school and friends, if they get sick and have to quarantine."
It could be several months until vaccines are approved for younger children. Until then, Bosslet advises kids under age 12 continue to wear masks indoors and in large crowds.
In preparing for the new school year, parents should check the CDC and Indiana Department of Health websites for the latest information. Parents also are encouraged to schedule any well-child visits, dental visits and other health appointments that may have been postponed due to the pandemic.
“We are all anxious for a return to normal,” Bosslet says. “The more people in our communities who are vaccinated, the sooner all of us—including our children—can enjoy that reality.”