Editor's note: This page was updated on Sept. 21, 2021. Please follow all rules and guidelines set by state and local public health and safety authorities. Reference the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and your local public health agency for immediate updates.
As children under 12 remain unvaccinated and the delta variant surges, parents of young children face new questions: How do I protect my children under 12 from more contagious variants of COVID-19? When and where should I wear my mask in public with my kids? What activities are safe to do with my children who are under 12, and what should we avoid?
Since March 2020, parents have had to balance two important needs: protecting their children from the coronavirus while also letting them do the things that let kids be kids — playing, learning and socializing. That challenge remains for parents of small children as they wait for vaccines to be authorized for younger kids.
To help with your planning, we asked two of Children’s Hospital Colorado’s pediatric infectious disease experts, Sara Saporta-Keating, MS, MD, and Samuel Dominguez, MD, PhD, for some guidelines.
“Focus on what you can control,” Dr. Dominguez says. “That means using all of our tools: good and frequent hand washing, wearing a face covering, limiting interactions with people outside of your household and staying home when you're sick. Then, when the time comes, get your child vaccinated as soon as possible. As parents, we have to be realistic that nothing is risk-free, but the goal is to lower risk as much as possible while allowing your kids to do the things that they enjoy."
To mask or not to mask?
Since COVID-19 remains a risk, especially to anyone who is not immunized, and the delta variant is proving to be much more contagious, individuals in most parts of the U.S. should mask up indoors, regardless of vaccination status. That includes while outside in crowded areas if social distancing isn’t possible. This applies to school, sports, trips to the park and family gatherings.
While it’s still much less likely to get COVID-19 and spread it to others if you’re vaccinated, infections in vaccinated people have become more common due to the delta variant. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidelines in July that recommend everyone, even vaccinated people, mask up again.
In addition to protecting yourself, Dr. Saporta-Keating stresses that by wearing a mask you’ll set an example for your unvaccinated kids. When you maintain the habit of wearing your face covering, even outside when social distancing is not possible, that will make it more likely that your kids will keep their face coverings on too.
“I still wear my mask indoors and outdoors in public because my 3-year-old doesn’t understand how it’s fair that I don’t have to wear a mask, but he does,” says Dr. Saporta-Keating. “He’s more inclined to keep it on if we’re both wearing them. I refer to it as ‘an act of solidarity’ for him.”
How to handle social gatherings with unvaccinated kids
In addition to adjusting to the new mask guidelines, you might be wondering how to approach social gatherings with your kids. Whenever possible, attend social gatherings held outdoors unless you’re willing to mask up and follow other COVID precautions. If a social gathering is taking place indoors, mask up.
While this means direct and perhaps uncomfortable conversations with friends and family, it’s important to do your due diligence to protect your kids. Because while COVID-19 still poses a low risk of severe illness to most children, there is still a risk. Children are getting COVID-19 and some do develop severe symptoms. A small number of kids are also developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, which can affect multiple organ systems — even after asymptomatic infections.
The key is to be mindful of your own risk tolerance and that of others. For example, Dr. Saporta-Keating points out that some parents might prefer to request that even vaccinated friends or family wear masks while around unvaccinated children, and especially while indoors. “While research shows that it’s less likely for vaccinated people to get and spread COVID-19, breakthrough infections and transmission are happening more now that the delta variant is dominant,” Dr. Saporta-Keating says. “If I go to a friend’s house and they have a child, I’ll ask my friend how risk-adverse they are and whether they prefer me to wear a mask while visiting. I’ll wear a mask on the outside chance that I may be infected and am contagious while asymptomatic.”
The good news is that the vaccines are proving to be highly effective. Current evidence suggests that even though vaccinated people can become infected with the delta variant and spread it to others, the likelihood of that happening is still much lower than in unvaccinated people. And if vaccinated people do get infected, the vaccine still protects against much more severe disease, similar to the flu shot.
Safe activities: planning sports and travel
When you’re together in public, make sure to keep plenty of masks on-hand for you and your children. Keep several in your car and purse or backpack. When they head to school, send them with a bag of clean masks and a bag for dirty ones. This will help your child, or their teachers, swap their mask if needed, and it also helps you know which masks to wash. Inquire about mask and distancing policies at your school and continue to have age-appropriate conversations with your children about the importance of following safety guidelines.
The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts recommend that all staff and students wear masks indoors while at school, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated or not. If your school is not requiring masks, you can continue to emphasize the importance of face coverings when you talk with your children and ensure that they have plenty of masks with them each day.
Learn what our experts recommend for the 2021-2022 schoolyear.
As with earlier phases of the COVID pandemic, outdoor activities for unvaccinated kids remain the safest option. While your children may be clamoring to visit indoor spots such as climbing or trampoline gyms or popular birthday party locations, we recommend avoiding most indoor locations and large indoor events until they’re vaccinated, and even then, masking while indoors.
When it comes to travel, driving in your car with your family is the safest option, but since masks are still required for everyone in crowded airports, on planes and on public transportation, traveling with unvaccinated kids is relatively safe as long as you take precautions. If you do take public transportation, remember to bring lots of extra masks for the whole family.
If your children play sports, keep in mind that unvaccinated kids should be wearing masks even during athletics held outdoors if social distancing is not possible. If they’re walking or riding bikes outdoors while maintaining a safe physical distance from people outside of their household, they can remove their face coverings. Exceptions for facial coverings during sports include swimming (while in the water) and activities such as gymnastics or competitive cheerleading that could lead to mask strings getting tangled and posing a risk of strangulation or injury.
Supporting your child’s mental health
After more than a year of uncertainty and restrictions on social interaction, many children are struggling — even as life normalizes for many adults.
“Kids are feeling more stressed and distressed than ever before,” says Jenna Glover, PhD, a child psychologist at Children’s Colorado. “The major activities in their lives have been constantly changing during the coronavirus pandemic and youth have been faced with prolonged periods of trying to cope with the unknown.”
To help protect your children from the virus while also bolstering their mental health, child and adolescent psychologists in our Pediatric Mental Health Institute have some recommendations. First, pay close attention to your children’s needs and plan activities that give them joy. If they want a play date, plan a get together outside with masks. Encourage social interactions among family and friends, and work with everyone involved to hold the event in a way that includes precautions.
Find guidance on age-appropriate schedules that include pandemic precautions.
Another helpful thing you can do is set aside quality time with your child. After a year in which families have faced the prolonged stress of multitasking to fulfill work obligations while in many cases also juggling online school at-home, quality time is more important now than ever. Spend some special, one-on-one time with your children doing the things that they love to do – without trying to multitask. Making sure your kids are getting as much active time outdoors is another great way to support kids’ mental health. While too much time spent on devices has been shown to have negative impacts on kids’ mental health, playing outside has positive effects.
Lastly, anxiety and depression in children have doubled during the pandemic, so it’s important to be vigilant, says Dr. Glover. “Check in regularly with your kids about how they’re feeling, and if you notice any changes in their mood, especially increased anger, irritability, anxiety or gloom that could be depression, reach out to your pediatrician to screen for symptoms.” Dr. Glover says prevention and early intervention have been shown to significantly reduce suicide attempts in children, and teletherapy now makes support easier and more accessible to kids throughout the state.
Find suggested questions for checking in with your child or learn how to support your teen throughout the pandemic.
Getting your child vaccinated
“Of all the tools we have in our toolbox to prevent COVID-19, vaccination is the most effective,” Dr. Dominguez says. If your child is turning 12, be prepared ahead of time and make sure you have a plan to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.
Find the latest COVID-19 vaccine updates, sign up to get the COVID vaccine at Children’s Colorado or read more about the COVID-19 vaccines: what we know, what we don’t, which vaccine is better and much more.