Getting children back to in-person school is of paramount importance to their well-being, health and development. If we keep this goal in mind and work together, I know we can meet this challenge.Steven Chapman, MD
Thanks to strategies followed by many school districts in New Hampshire and Vermont last year, in-person learning was successful despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Based on lessons learned, the relatively high vaccination rates in the twin states and the low risk of severe COVID-19 cases in children across age groups, all school districts will return to in-person instruction for the upcoming 2021-22 school year, and the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) fully supports this data-driven decision.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have published national guidance for a safe return to school, which informed local prevention strategies created by the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services (NH DPHS) and the Vermont Agency of Education and Department of Health (VDH).
Currently the level of community transmission of COVID-19 is substantial to high across our entire region according to the CDC. Therefore, all students and school staff should start the school year wearing properly fit approved masks, universally.
This guidance can adjust based on local suppression of COVID-19—providing flexibility for individual communities over time.
Mask requirements in New Hampshire schools
The NH DPHS recommends all students and staff wear masks indoors when the level of community transmission is “substantial.” This means that new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days is high, or there is a high percentage of COVID-19 tests showing positive results in that community. Indoor mask requirements can change as levels return to moderate or minimal. The NH DPHS published a decision matrix to explain this community-informed guidance, along with a real-time dashboard of local COVID-19 spread.
“I appreciate the data-driven approach to making decisions based on local levels of community transmission in New Hampshire,” says Erik M. Shessler, MD, an associate medical director for CHaD and chapter president of the New Hampshire Pediatric Society. “I’m comfortable sending my kids to school; my oldest is vaccinated and I look forward to getting my youngest vaccinated as soon as it is available.”
Masks requirements in Vermont schools
In Vermont, mask guidance is vaccine- and school-based. The VDH is requiring indoor masking for the first 10 days of school for all students and staff. Once a school reaches an 80 percent full vaccination rate of children eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, masks will not be required for those eligible for the vaccine (currently only children aged 12 and older). Children under 12 must wear masks until they are vaccine-eligible and 80 percent of a school population is fully vaccinated.
Other suggested guidelines
CHaD, NH DPHS and VDH urge families and schools to follow these additional guidelines:
- Vaccinate everyone as soon as eligible. Parents and other adults living with children should be vaccinated as soon as possible.
- Don’t send children to school sick. They should only return after 24 hours without fever reducing medications.
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Continue regular cleaning. Enhanced measures in schools are unnecessary (COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces).
- Aim for three feet of physical distance indoors if possible (the standard distance in schools based on AAP, CDC and NH/VT data).
- Cohorting students–keeping small groups of students and teachers together–helps with contact tracing (Vermont will continue contact tracing, New Hampshire will not).
- Testing helps with screening and surveillance.
“With data, kindness and community, we can do this—we already have,” encourages CHaD Pediatrician Steven Chapman, MD, who volunteered as SAU 70 physician last year and is a member of the school district’s Task Force to keep kids healthy and in school. “Getting children back to in-person school is of paramount importance to their well-being, health and development. If we keep this goal in mind and work together, I know we can meet this challenge.”