What parents need to know about COVID-19, monkeypox as students return to school

·5 min read
School nurse Deb Strouse, left, helps fourth grade student Isaiah Coleman, adjust his mask on the first day of school on July 29, 2021, for Woodcrest Elementary, Columbus City Schools' only year-round program.
School nurse Deb Strouse, left, helps fourth grade student Isaiah Coleman, adjust his mask on the first day of school on July 29, 2021, for Woodcrest Elementary, Columbus City Schools' only year-round program.

Cases of COVID-19 and monkeypox cases are on the rise in Ohio as students prepare to head back to the classroom, so should parents be concerned for their student's health?

Local health experts say they are worried about COVID-19 in schools, but they aren’t concerned about students contracting monkeypox.

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“I am concerned about the spread of COVID-19, really I’m concerned about COVID-19 everywhere in the community, not just the classroom,” said Columbus Public Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika W. Roberts.

The COVID BA.5 variant is the most contagious yet and Ohio reported 27,785 new COVID-19 cases this week as of Aug. 4.

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Franklin County is currently listed as having a high level of transmission on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest COVID-19 data tracker.

While monkeypox cases across the U.S. have increased to several thousand and have gradually increased in Ohio, there have only been a total 68 confirmed monkeypox cases in Ohio as of Monday, according to the CDC.

Mask mandates in schools to prevent COVID-19 rise?

Columbus and Franklin County public health agencies issued indoor mask advisories on July 22, but no Greater Columbus school districts had put a mask mandate in place as of Tuesday — which concerns Roberts.

“This new strain of COVID-19 is highly contagious and wearing a mask is something simple that we can all do to help slow the spread of the virus in our community while still keeping all of our businesses open, our schools open,” Roberts said.

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Roberts is recommending school districts put a mask mandate in place if the CDC lists the county as having a high level of transmission, which Franklin County currently does.

Columbus City Schools is going to be reviewing the case rate in the school district and in Franklin County on a weekly basis, said Dr. Sara Bode, the school district's medical consultant and a primary care pediatrician at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

“If we need to or we increase to a high transmission rate (in the schools and in the community), we may need to change and go back to universal masking for indoors," she said.

There is no threshold for COVID-19 cases that will automatically trigger a mask mandate for Columbus City Schools, she said.

“It’s difficult to just give a number because there’s multiple factors we look at,” Bode said.

Those factors include the number of positive COVID-19 cases in schools and if students are contracting the coronavirus at school or in the community.

If a mask mandate were to go into effect, she said it would be district-wide and wouldn't be limited to certain schools that might be seeing an outbreak or lots of cases.

“We don’t want to confuse families,” Bode said. “This has been difficult enough. It’s really difficult to go back and forth and make a lot of changes.”

Roberts said her advice for keeping students healthy is getting vaccinated, wearing a mask at school and washing hands. She also recommends families have at-home COVID-19 test kits.

Ohio University’s mask mandate went into effect Monday because Athens County is listed as having a high level of transmission on the CDC's latest COVID-19 data tracker.

They are the the first public university in Ohio to reinstate a mask mandate after colleges and universities shed their mask mandates in the spring. OU's classes begin Aug. 22.

Mask mandates: Ohio University will reinstate mask mandate due to rising COVID-19 transmission rates

The university's mask mandate will drop when the level of COVID-19 transmission in Athens County goes down to medium.

Monkeypox not a worry in schools

An illustration of monkeypox virus particles. This virus, endemic to the rainforests in Central and West Africa, causes disease in humans and monkeys, although its natural hosts are rodents.
An illustration of monkeypox virus particles. This virus, endemic to the rainforests in Central and West Africa, causes disease in humans and monkeys, although its natural hosts are rodents.

Parents should not be worried about their child contracting monkeypox, Roberts said.

“You should be more worried about sending your student to school and getting COVID-19 or the flu than getting monkeypox,” she said.

Monkeypox is caused by a virus that spreads through close, intimate contact or during sex. It also can spread through contact with sheets, towels and other objects and through kissing, according to the city health department.

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Monkeypox can spread from the time symptoms start until a rash caused by the virus has fully healed. The illness typically lasts two to four weeks, according to Columbus Public Health.

There are three groups of people who could be vulnerable to complications: children under 8, pregnant women and those who are immunocompromised, according to the CDC.

Despite this, Bode and Roberts both stressed that parents shouldn't be concerned.

“The outbreak that we are seeing here in the United States has largely impacted adults and has largely impacted men who have sex with men," Roberts said.

Though the White House declared monkeypox a public health emergency last week, the factors by which it spreads make it "definitely low-risk" in a school setting, Bode said.

"But one of the things we always do is prepare, because we know the state of viruses can change rapidly,” she said.

Megan Henry is a Columbus Dispatch K-12 education reporter. Reach her at mhenry@dispatch.com or (614) 559-1758. Follow her on Twitter @megankhenry. Sign up for her education newsletter here.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Back-to-school: What parents need to know about monkeypox, COVID-19