For academic, social, and psychological reasons, a return to solid in-person schooling is important for children throughout New Jersey, experts agree.

But this return to the classroom in September 2021 — which, as of now, does not include the ability for districts or parents to opt for remote learning — comes during a resurgence of the COVID-19 threat, led by a more contagious variant that appears to be infecting more children.

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Gemma Downham, corporate director of patient safety and infection prevention at AtlantiCare, said students, both young and old, can likely maintain their health and the health of others by following a handful of safety tips, a few of which seem like common sense but are getting an extra push in 2021.

With some of the tips, it may be the parents who need to do the listening.

Vaccinate children 12 and older

"Our biggest recommendation would be to make sure that all students that are 12 and up are vaccinated — they're able to get the COVID-19 vaccine," Downham said.

That's been the recommendation of state officials since the middle of May, when Pfizer's two-dose regimen was approved for individuals aged 12 to 15.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it typically takes one's body two weeks after the final dose to reach ultimate protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.

While older children have the ability to be vaccinated, Downham noted, they're also more likely to congregate outside school or at lockers. So, prevention efforts shouldn't end with a shot.

"It's also really important not to send sick kids to school," Downham said.

COVID-19 isn't the only disease lurking, she said. Medical professionals are already seeing high numbers of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which typically doesn't pick up speed until December or January. And flu season can last until May — residents are advised to be vaccinated for influenza by the end of October.

Keep sick kids home

Kids showing signs or symptoms of COVID-19 should be tested and seen by a doctor, Downham said. Parents should be certain that their child is not positive for COVID-19 before sending the child back to school, she said.

"And if they do end up being positive for COVID-19, it's important to keep them home for that full 10-day isolation period before they go back to school," she added.

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The right masks for children

Wearing a face covering is one thing. Wearing one that makes a difference is another.

The CDC advises that people choose masks that have two or more layers of breathable fabric. Masks should also completely cover one's nose and mouth, fit snugly against the sides of one's face, and have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask, according to the CDC.

Downham said if kids aren't yet used to wearing masks, parents should try to make them comfortable before the school year begins and they're forced to have it on for hours in a row.

"The best mask is the mask they keep on all day," Downham said.

Basic hygiene for children

Downham said kids should be sent to the classroom with hand sanitizer and tissues, and that parents should go over "respiratory etiquette" — covering your nose while sneezing and mouth while coughing, and washing your hands immediately after using a tissue.

Children, she added, should be reminded not to share food or drinks, or other items that can transmit saliva from one person to the next, like lip balm.

Downham said each safety tip is "another layer of Swiss cheese" that covers gaps where the virus can spread. And she likens to COVID-19 to a wildfire, which needs tinder to burn.

"Unvaccinated individuals are the tinder," she said.

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