Keeping Schools Safe During COVID-19

School mask

We can safely keep kids in schools and minimize the disruptions of moving between remote and in-person learning. Maintenance of safety at school is really a community effort.

Sandra B. Nelson, MD

Following another surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, many communities are facing an all-too-familiar struggle: balancing the health benefits and risks of keeping schools open.

“The ultimate goal is for students and educators to remain in school safely,” says Sandra B. Nelson, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Mass General Brigham. “We don’t want students to lose their learning opportunities or suffer other harms from being out of school. We want to help ensure workplace preservation for parents, safety for educators, and we want to foster family wellness.“

Dr. Nelson notes behaviors both in and outside of schools impact school safety.

“Students are more likely to be infected with COVID outside of school than in school,” she explains. “We can safely keep kids in schools and minimize the disruptions of moving between remote and in-person learning. Maintenance of safety at school is really a community effort.”

Top 5 COVID-19 safety tips for schools and communities

Here’s how to keep our schools and communities safe:

1. Get vaccinated.

This is the most important action students, school staff, and other community members can take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mass General Brigham offers first-dose COVID-19 vaccines for patients 5 years and older on a limited basis, along with booster shots for patients 12 years and older. We also provide an additional primary shot for moderately or severely immunocompromised patients ages 5 and older. Vaccines also are available throughout communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines

2. Wear a well-fitted mask.

Masks and respirators (specialized filtering masks such as “N95s”) can provide different levels of protection, depending on the type of mask and how they are used.

Which mask is best for kids? We have learned a lot about better quality masks. While some masks filter particles more effectively than others, these should only be used if children can wear them consistently and correctly. It’s most important that the child use a well-fitting mask that they will be able to wear for the whole school day.

Check the fit so that there are no gaps around the nose or side of face. Masks that are too large are less effective. KN95 and KF94 respirator masks do a better job of filtering viral particles, but only when they are fitted to the wearer's face. Adult sized respiratory masks are often too large for a child's face. While some KN95 and KF94 masks are available in child sizes, they may be difficult to find. Counterfeit KN95 and KF94 masks also are unfortunately common.

Emerging research shows that surgical masks protect us better than cloth masks and some data shows the “knot-and-tuck” method can provide a better fit. Wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask also adds protection. For children who struggle with masks, practice at home to help them become more at ease. Learn more about the types of masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

3. Screen for COVID-19 symptoms.

Be diligent. Don’t dismiss COVID symptoms, even if they’re mild.

Use our COVID-19 screener tool

4. Get tested if you have symptoms.

Massachusetts has many testing options. If you live somewhere else, check your state website for resources. Keep a supply of rapid tests at home (often called antigen tests). The CDC has more information about home testing.

Mass General Brigham has limited capacity for testing at this time. We are no longer able to offer elective testing (for example, testing for travel). We are adding testing capacity. We hope to be able to offer elective testing again soon.

Learn more about COVID-19 testing

Please do not go to the emergency room or urgent care only to get a COVID-19 test.

5. Maintain COVID-19 safety measures outside of school.

Students may be exposed to COVID-19 in settings where people tend to let their guards down, especially around family and friends. Kids are more likely to get infected at home, or by interacting with others during youth sports, sleepovers and other extracurricular activities. Everyone can help prevent the spread of infection by following these COVID safety measures.