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Opinion The pandemic has become more dangerous for children. Here’s how to help keep them safe.

Fifth-graders wear masks and distance during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y., in May. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Unvaccinated children will soon be starting school during what might be the most dangerous moment in the pandemic for them.

In the week ending Aug. 5, more than 93,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus, a nearly 400 percent increase from just three weeks earlier, due in large part to the extremely contagious delta variant. Though most infected children experience mild symptoms, reports abound of previously healthy kids becoming critically ill. Every day, more than 200 children under the age of 18 are hospitalized in the United States because of covid-19.

Yet, despite 98 percent of Americans residing in areas that meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for indoor mask mandates, most states and locales have not reimposed them, and unvaccinated adults continue to roam unmasked in public places. At the same time, many schools are returning to in-person instruction with fewer safeguards than before. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has forbidden school districts from requiring masks and threatened to withhold funding from schools that defy his order. The Texas Education Agency has said schools no longer need to conduct contact tracing, nor are they required to notify parents of positive cases in the classroom.

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It’s a sad indictment of our society that children are paying the price for irresponsible adults and reckless policymakers. As a result, parents like me who have kids too young to be vaccinated must take matters into our own hands to reduce risk. Here are seven suggestions as families prepare for the return to school:

1. Make sure all adults in the household are vaccinated. The best way to protect vulnerable children is to have all their close contacts vaccinated. Breakthrough infections can happen, but those vaccinated have an eight-fold reduction in their chance of contracting the coronavirus compared with the unvaccinated. Adolescents 12 and older should also get inoculated to help protect younger siblings; the benefits of vaccination in this age group far outweigh rare risks.

2. Go outdoors. Outdoors remains the safest place for the unvaccinated. There are relatively few documented cases of outdoor coronavirus transmission, and I would feel comfortable with children not wearing masks when playing outside or participating in outdoor sports. Allowing kids to unmask outdoors also emphasizes that it’s indoors where masks are crucial.

3. Mask indoors at all times when around other unvaccinated people. Schools should follow the CDC guidelines for universal indoor masking. If your child’s school does not mandate masks, consider speaking with other parents to see whether a classroom norm can be established where the majority of kids voluntarily mask. And mask quality matters. A cloth face-covering is not enough; choose at least a three-ply surgical mask, or, if your child can tolerate it, an N95 or KN95.

4. Increase testing. Many schools had to do away with physical distancing to accommodate full-time in-person instruction. Testing is an important layer of protection that, together with masking, vaccination and improved ventilation, helps to replace the need for distancing. According to the CDC, schools in areas with all but the lowest rates of virus transmission should have at least weekly testing for unvaccinated students and staff. Ask about your school’s testing protocols and urge administrators to bring them in line with CDC recommendations.

5. Form pandemic pods. Families should consider reconstituting pods they had earlier in the pandemic. This could help with after-school child care and carpools, and offer safer options during school — for example, kids could eat lunch with others in their pod and further reduce exposure. Families in the same pod should have a similar risk tolerance. In our pod, everyone agrees to mask in grocery stores, churches and other public settings, and we do not gather indoors with unvaccinated people.

6. Be cautious during informal activities. It would be a shame if kids were careful during a soccer match only to let down their guard in locker rooms, or if choir practice took place with masks only for them to come off during the pizza party after. Parents should apply the same level of vigilance for social activities as they would during the school day.

7. Remember, risk is additive. There will be some risk associated with in-person schooling, but, for most kids, that risk is worth the extraordinary educational, developmental and psychological benefits. Parents should reduce in-school risk as much as possible and also cut exposure out of school. For my family, that includes avoiding indoor restaurants and requiring visiting relatives to be vaccinated.

Ultimately, the key to reducing risk for children is for adults to step up and curtail the spread of covid-19. We need to dramatically increase vaccination rates in those eligible while urging the expedited development of vaccines for younger kids. The actions of adults have made this a particularly dangerous time for kids, but parents can still do our part to protect our children.

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