Vaccines and Masks: A Doctor Answers Your Back-to-School COVID-19 Questions

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A doctor joined "Today in New York" on Wednesday to address questions submitted by NBC New York's viewers regarding COVID-19 and how to protect children as the delta variant spreads and students prepare to return to school.

Dr. Jennifer Haythe, an assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at Columbia, offered some key answers. See those below and in the video above.

What do we know about recent vaccine studies applying to children under 12?

We know that even with delta, the rate of infection is about the same. Children make up about 15 million people in this country and those people are all not vaccinated right now because they're under 12. So they're at high risk of infection.

Delta's much more contagious. So as more people get infected with delta, children will be the same percentage but a higher number of children will become infected. This is really a huge concern for parents, for our society. We have to protect our kids because they cannot get the vaccine.

What is the best mask for children to wear to school?

We want children to be comfortable. the best mask is the mask that they're gonna keep on when they're supposed to. So pick a mask that your child likes, but obviously, a surgical mask is the best type of mask to use.

Make sure that it fits them. Don't get an adult mask for a child that's small. Also if there's a print that they like that can help them keep it on. Make sure they like what they're wearing. An N95 is very uncomfortable -- probably not necessary for school-age children at this point. Just the mask they're going to wear.

What is the latest science about air circulation in classrooms and what do parents and educators need to know to protect students?

We need there to be good air circulation. Children are close together. They touch each other. They sneeze. They're on top of each other.

Schools are probably going to be enforcing mitigation efforts like mask-wearing, like putting kids into smaller classrooms, keeping windows open and having classes outdoors if possible --- the same thing we saw last year as much as possible while the weather's still warm enough for kids to do that.

We need good ventilation but most importantly, we need our teachers to be vaccinated. We need adults around them to be vaccinated, you know, athletic instructors, people who work in the school. That is going to be crucial in preventing COVID in schools.

How long should students or families quarantine if they're exposed to COVID-19?

It will depend a little bit on your school and how intense the exposure was. If there were more than 15 minutes with some who tested positive for COVID in the same room, we're looking at about a 10-day quarantine at this point.

If it was more of a loose connection with maybe someone who is outdoors, we're just going to have to see. Maybe seven days, but you're going to have to check with your personal school and find out what their recommendations are.

We're looking at roughly 7-10 days at this point.

How safe is school going to be for kids with mandated vaccines and mask vs. no mandate?

To the schools that are mandating vaccine or weekly testing, applause to them. It is very important to protect our children. These are a group of individuals in this country who cannot get vaccinated and have literally zero protection against COVID unless they've already had it.

I think parents should feel about schools that are implementing vaccine mandates, especially for children over the age of 12 as well as their teachers and workers, is a lot of relief. That doesn't mean that you should let your guards down, still wearing masks, still warning hands.

For schools that don't require vaccines, that are not requiring masks, we're seeing a lot of uproar across the country. Clearly, this is causing problems.

Huge rates of COVID among kids down in states like Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee --- were's seeing large numbers there. Again, like we said before, it is very contagious. This is not last year's coronavirus. This is a whole new breed here and we're seeing much more transmission, much more illness among kids, and the more kids that get sick, the more we'll see hospitalized.

What precautions should parents and guardians take?

Vaccinations for everyone that's eligible, for sure. Wear masks in school and keep your family close to other families that you feel are safe and are following protocol. Try to stick into those family pods again for the fall, at least and see where it goes. Carpool with the same group. Try to limit exposure to people you don't know.

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