COVID Cases Among Kids Surge as School Year Begins

Learn how to help keep your child safe from the Delta variant.

Medically reviewed in August 2021

Updated on August 12, 2021

The brief slowdown in new COVID-19 cases across the United States in May and early June now seems like a distant memory. The number of people testing positive for the infection has increased dramatically since July amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Unvaccinated people account for the vast majority of these cases—a growing number of them are kids.

As of August 5, nearly 4.3 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. But the following week, nearly 94,000 kids were infected—a dramatic surge, accounting for 15 percent of all new cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

So with schools back in session, what does this mean for students younger than 12-years old who aren’t yet eligible to receive the vaccines authorized for use in the United States?

How can parents keep their children safe? And what should they do if their child has worrisome symptoms—or tests positive for COVID?

Yes, return to school—but mask up
Health officials and pediatric experts encourage the return to in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year, stressing that it’s best not only for children’s academic success but also their mental well-being.

“Remote-learning highlighted inequities in education, was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages and exacerbated the mental health crisis among children and adolescents,” according to the AAP. Effective prevention measures implemented in 2020 kept in-school transmission rates low, suggesting that “the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances,” the AAP concluded.

As teachers, students and staff return to school this fall, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking—regardless of vaccination status. That means even fully vaccinated people should continue to wear a face covering to help stop the spread of Delta.

Why are we back to masking?

As of August, more than 90 percent of new cases are caused by Delta—a variant that is not only more infectious than the original strain, but also more severe. Delta is at least twice as infectious as initial COVID strains. It appears to spread as easily as chickenpox (varicella-zoster) or measles, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. That means if one person has it, up to 90 percent of the unvaccinated people who come into close contact with that person will also become infected.

Existing vaccines are highly effective—even against Delta. But this variant is more likely than other strains of the coronavirus to result in rare “breakthrough” infections among those who have been immunized. Vaccinated people who are infected are unlikely to become seriously ill but there is some evidence that they could still spread the Delta variant to others, particularly those who are unvaccinated.

What about P.E. and recess?

Generally, masks are not needed outside during physical activities, like gym or outdoor play. But unvaccinated adults and kids should wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings where they will be in continuous contact with others, the CDC advises. Fully vaccinated people may also choose to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings if they have a weakened immune system or live with someone who has a weakened immune system.

Keep in mind, for other extracurriculars, the CDC notes that close contact or indoor sports are particularly risky as are certain activities, like band, choir, theater, and school clubs that meet indoors. The risks increase along with the number of people involved as well as the duration and intensity of the activity.

Other prevention strategies should be used
In addition to universal indoor masking, the CDC advises that schools enforce the following preventative steps:

  • Distance: Keep at least 3 feet of physical space between students within classrooms.
  • Ventilation: Increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible while indoors. That means opening windows, doors and turning on fans and keeping the air moving inside.
  • Hand hygiene: Encourage students and staff to wash hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol is a good alternative, if necessary.
  • Respiratory etiquette: Students and staff should be reminded to cover coughs or sneezes with an unused tissue or upper sleeve—not their hands.
  • Routine cleaning: Schools should ensure that commonly used objects and surfaces that students and staff use often throughout the day are disinfected.
  • Avoid sharing: Personal items or supplies, like water bottles, pencils and scissors, should not be passed between students or staff members.
  • Stay home when necessary: Advise students and staff to avoid those who are sick and stay home if they develop symptoms or suspect that they are sick.

How to protect children—and what to do if they’re exposed
It’s true that Delta is more easily spread, causes more severe infections and cases among children are on the rise. But kids aren’t targeted by this variant, or more vulnerable to it than adults. They are just more likely to catch Delta than they were to get earlier variants, particularly if they’re unvaccinated.

As of August 10, nearly 60 percent of adults and children ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the CDC reports. The AAP has urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorize the vaccine for children younger than 12-years old as new cases among kids rise.

Getting vaccinated and having your children vaccinated as soon as they are eligible for the vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself and them from COVID-19.

Anyone who isn’t vaccinated who has been in close contact (within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period) with someone who has COVID-19, needs to quarantine. These people should be monitored for symptoms until 14 days after their exposure.

Those who have been vaccinated must only quarantine if they develop symptoms. But they should still get tested 3 to 5 days after their exposure and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until their test result is negative—even if they don’t have symptoms.

Anyone who develops symptoms should isolate themselves and call their healthcare provider (HCP) for guidance.

Caring for someone with COVID at home
If certain members of your household are vaccinated but others aren’t, you may be unsure how to care for someone who tests positive, particularly a child. Since even vaccinated people can be infected with Delta and spread it to others, many of the same COVID guidelines recommended when the pandemic began still hold true.

Sick household members should be isolated. If possible, they should use a separate bedroom and bathroom for others. In shared spaces, they should stay at least 6 feet away from others. Avoid having unnecessary visitors come to your home as well.

Increase ventilation or air circulation as much as possible indoors, particularly in shared spaces or common areas.

Everyone in the home should wear a mask when they’re not eating, bathing or sleeping.

And be sure to frequently disinfect commonly used objects and surfaces in your home to avoid contact transmission—or someone touching a contaminated surface then touching their eyes, nose or mouth.

If you suspect or know that you or someone in your home has COVID-19, the infected person should remain isolated until:

  • It’s been 10 days since their symptoms first developed
  • Their symptoms are improving
  • It’s been 24 hours since they had no fever and didn’t take a fever-reducing medication

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker.” Accessed on Aug 11, 2021.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report.” Aug 9, 2021.
American Academy of Pediatrics. “AAP urges in-person learning, masking in updated guidance on safe schools.” Jul 18, 2021.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.” Aug 5, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Chickenpox.” Apr 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Measles (Rubeola).” Nov 2020.
Nature. “Delta coronavirus variant: scientists brace for impact.” Jun 22, 2021.
Science-Based Medicine. “The Delta Variant.” Jun 23, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science.” Aug 6, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Quarantine and Isolation.” Jul 29, 2021.

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