AILSA CHANG, HOST:
To mask or not to mask - that is the question at the heart of the controversy swirling around students returning to school across the country. While the CDC has recommended that everyone wear masks in school, there's been fierce debate and even court fights, all while cases of delta tick up among children. Many schools have ramped up their efforts to combat the spread. California today issued a new public health order that requires all school staff to either show proof of full vaccination or be tested at least once a week. For some practical tips on how to keep your child healthy, our co-host Audie Cornish spoke with NPR health reporter Pien Huang.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Masks or not, no matter how many little gold arrows and footprints you paint on the hallway floors, we know that germs spread when young children get together. So what do people think is the right approach if a child does wake up, say, with the sniffles?
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, Seema Lakdawala - she's a flu researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, and she went through this recently. Her 8-year-old woke up sneezing with a runny nose. Step one, she said, was to keep her home. And step two...
SEEMA LAKDAWALA: I will call the pediatrician and just talk through where we've been. If we were traveling, I think I would be more concerned. If we'd been on a plane recently, then I would, you know, definitely want to try to go get her tested.
HUANG: In this case, she and the doctor thought that it was allergies. And sure enough, the kid took some allergy meds, and she stopped sneezing.
CORNISH: What would prompt a doctor to say, yes, it's time to get your child tested?
HUANG: It could be a number of things. It could be the symptoms - if your child has a fever or loss of taste or smell. It might be the situation - if your kid is exposed. And if there's just a lot of virus transmission going on in the community, they may say, let's just test for it. And experts say it helps to do some research now to know where you can get that test with a fast turnaround time. Maybe your pediatrician has walk-in hours. Maybe your health department runs a test site nearby. And when you know you need to get a test, it might help to call ahead to confirm protocols.
Some of these places can actually give results these days in 12 to 24 hours. And that's for a PCR test, which is still considered the gold standard. But another option is to keep some antigen tests at home. You can now get these 15-minute rapid tests from many pharmacies, and they can add up. They generally cost about $25 for a box of two, but they're considered fairly reliable for people with symptoms. So if someone has the sniffles, it could give you a pretty good read.
CORNISH: Next scenario - the child in your care tests positive - right? - for the coronavirus. What should parents be thinking about then?
HUANG: Well, for starters, don't panic. Dr. Cassandra Pierre - she's an epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, and she has young twins - she says that kids are very resilient.
CASSANDRA PIERRE: Yes, with the delta variant, we are hearing about more cases of infection - significant infection in children, hospitalization in children. But still, we know that children are less likely to get those severe complications.
HUANG: Now, before it happens, come up with a household plan. Is there a room and bathroom they can have to themselves? Lakdawala and her husband have two young kids, so their plan is to split into parent-child pairs. One would care for the sick kid, the other for the not sick. They'd stay in different parts of the house, take turns in the kitchen.
But if space is tight, there are other things you can do. Everyone should wear masks except when eating or sleeping. Open windows. Run some fans. Use an air filter because - remember - the coronavirus travels through the air. And after a few days, test to see if anyone else is sick. And if you think you might need backup, come up with a list of family, friends, neighbors that are fully vaccinated so they might be able to step in and help.
CORNISH: All right. Another scenario...
CORNISH: What if a student tests positive - right? - in a child's class? So your child isn't sick, but maybe they've been in close contact. I mean, would a household need to quarantine then?
HUANG: So the CDC definition of a close contact at school is actually pretty limited. If your kid was at least three feet away from someone who tests positive and they were both fully masked, your kid is not exposed. But if one of them wasn't masked, then your child would probably need to quarantine, assuming that they're not vaccinated. That doesn't mean that they have to go to the room and stay there. The experts that I talked with said be reasonable. Keep some distance, especially from vulnerable or unvaccinated people. But if the rest of the family remains healthy, one expert said that she would feel comfortable sending everyone to school and work and the grocery store with masks. But she would cancel nonessential business-like playdates and dinners out.
CORNISH: It's funny. We're at this point in the pandemic where it feels like each of us is relying on the decisions that other people make.
HUANG: We know that vaccines do reduce transmission a lot, but they're not perfect. And we're hearing about breakthrough infections right now. So it is going to be possible in school settings for even vaccinated adults - you know, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff - to infect children and for children to transmit the virus to others. And that's why masks are an important tool right now. You know, if you're thinking about what kind of mask, the experts I spoke with said the best one is something that your child will wear consistently and correctly.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Pien, thanks so much for explaining all this.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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