Monkeypox is making headlines, but health experts say school leaders shouldn’t worry too much about the infection becoming as disruptive as COVID. The illness, which has sparked public health emergencies in a handful of cities, is largely spread through skin-to-skin contact and only a few children have contracted the virus so far, says Dr. Sten H. Vermund, a professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Public Health.
Still, educators and school nurses can encourage vulnerable parents to take precautions, such as being fully clothed when hugging their children.”We do not think it’s going to be a major issue within the pediatric population,” Vermund says. “Still, if a parent is at risk for monkeypox, that should modulate their behavior.”
School nurses will be on the lookout for monkeypox as they care for students this school year and assess whether a referral to an outside healthcare provider is necessary. “One of our roles is to do surveillance,” says Linda Mendonça, president of the National Association of School Nurses. “School nurses will have [monkeypox] on their radar even though this age group is not in the high-risk category.”
COVID remains a bigger threat than monkeypox
In guidelines just released for the coming school year, the state of Connecticut recommends school leaders use a strategic “test-mask-go” approach. This would allow children and staff with mild respiratory disease symptoms to attend school in person as long as they test negative, have no fever, wear a mask, and do not live with someone who has recently had COVID.
Administrators must continue to keep track of community transmission to prepare for—or prevent—potential outbreaks in their buildings. “Everyone wants to get back to how things were,” Mendonça says. “Realistically, that probably isn’t the smartest thing to do as we still have variants.”
Schools should continue to offer flu and COVID vaccine clinics, and, as the state of Connecticut suggests, strongly consider requiring masks if there is a local surge in cases. “Masking is tricky, but we know that wearing a mask does work,” Mendonça says.
Child vaccination rates remain “suboptimal,” Vermund says. “It used to be that vaccinating adults was very challenging and difficult, and vaccinating children was more straightforward,” he says. “Now it’s the other way around, for reasons that are not completely apparent.”
Public health officials remain concerned that COVID will surge again during respiratory virus season in the late fall or winter. If that occurs, administrators will have to consider mask mandates and ramping up other safety measures. “We could have some of the same disruptions that we’ve had over the past two years, which we want to do everything we can to avoid,” Vermund says. “The evidence is abundant that home-based learning through a child’s computer is not as effective as school-based learning.”