Your Kid Was Exposed To COVID At School, And Has To Isolate Now? Here's What To Do

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

This past weekend, for the first time, our family had a COVID scare.

I realize how lucky we are in that regard! My children learned remotely all last year and were totally isolated. This year, they are back in school full-time. So when my teen started complaining of a sore throat on Saturday, I knew that I would need to deal with getting him tested for COVID, notifying his school, and dealing with a possible isolation period.

Even though he’s fully vaccinated and had no known COVID exposures, I was a nervous wreck. Thankfully, an at-home test revealed a negative test result, and a test at urgent care the next day also came back negative. Phew.

Still, the whole experience made me realize that although I’d spent a long time talking to my kids about how to stay safe in school—don’t remove that damn mask!—I hadn’t really considered talking to them about what would happen if they tested positive for COVID, or were exposed to COVID in school, and had to test and quarantine.

Because, yes, even though they are lucky to attend school in a district with very strong COVID protocols, it’s likely that they will be exposed at some point, or there will be another reason why they need to take a test and/or isolate.

As I dealt with this scare, I started thinking about what I could do to prepare them mentally, intellectually, and how I would be able to keep our household running (somewhat) smoothly if they were home quarantined.

Here are my thoughts … with some help from experts, too.

Make Sure You Understand Your School’s COVID Protocols

As soon as I considered the possibility that my son may have caught COVID, I started wondering what would happen to the rest of our family. I have a younger, unvaccinated son who would count as an exposure. I also wondered how many days either of my kids would have to isolate, and if that would depend on their vaccination status, whether they could test out of quarantine, etc.

My kids’ school district COVID exposure/isolation instructions were online, but it was good to get a refresher. I urge you to make sure you know where your district’s protocols can be found, and to familiarize yourself with them.

You don’t want to be scrambling to understand this stuff when you are in the middle of a scare. Trust me.

Explain COVID Quarantine/Exposure Procedures Simply And Directly

I believe that kids are able to understand the basics of how exposure, testing, and isolation work, and that the best thing to do is to tell them as simply as possible what the rules are. Don’t go adding your two cents in there about whether you think the rules make sense or are too strict/too lenient. Just tell them what the school says you have to do in XYZ circumstances.

Dr. Anna Miller-Fitzwater, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, tells the New York Times that it’s a smart idea to ask your child what they already know about the protocols, because it’s possible that they might have some misunderstandings about them. You can then clear up any confusion, and answer any lingering questions they may have.

Let Your Child “Feel All The Feels”

If your child is exposed to COVID, or starts to show symptoms of COVID, they are going to have lots of feelings. It’s important to reassure them that all of those feelings are normal, that a lot of kids are experiencing this too, and that it’s okay if some of their feelings are intense.

Louise Dalton, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford department of psychiatry, explains to The Times that when a child finds out that they need to isolate, they are going to have a range of feelings, and that different kids will react in different ways.

“Some may feel really anxious and worried, some may feel really angry with the person they think exposed them,” she explained. Dalton added that some kids will be happy to be out of school, but other kids will be blindsided by this. That’s all normal too.

The main idea is to create a space where your children can feel safe to express their feelings, even the difficult ones.

Make Sure You Have An Isolation Plan In Place

When I considered the idea that I might have to have to isolate one or both of my kids for 10 days because of COVID, I began to realize that I have never fully thought this through. What the heck would my plan be?

Dr. Leana Wen tells CNN that, if possible, your child should isolate with a vaccinated family member. You should get your child tested about five days past their possible exposure, and you should try to quarantine that child away from the rest of the family until that child gets a negative test result or their quarantine period ends.

If you have a vaccinated child, they may be able to test out of their quarantine period and return to school with a negative result, but you’ll have to check with your district to find out. The main thing is that while you are waiting for your child’s test results, you will want to make sure you have someone who can stay home with them, and you’ll want to minimize your interaction with others, so as not to possibly expose them.

As a vaccinated work-from-home parent, I know that I’d be the one to be home with my child in this case. But I know that in families where both parents work, or in single parent homes, these things aren’t as easy to coordinate. That’s why it’s good to have a plan beforehand.

Start talking to your friends and family members now about how they might be able to help, says Dr. Wen. “That way if you end up quarantined with your child, other people can help you with groceries and medications,” she says. “If you have friends who are single parents, consider offering to be their backup help. We are all in this together and need to help one another get through this time.”

Amen to that.

Reassure Your Child That They Did Nothing Wrong

It’s common for children to blame themselves or blame others when something like a COVID exposure happens, Dr. Miller-Fitzwater tells The Times. They might feel guilty about becoming exposed, and they might begin to feel anger toward the person who exposed them, assuming that it was done purposely or with bad intent.

You’ve got to reassure your child that these things happen—these are just the times we are living in—and that no one is to blame here. “Avoid language that leaves a stigma,” suggests Dr. Miller-Fitzwater. “Make sure they understand this wasn’t someone else’s intention.”

Watch For Signs Of Mental Health Struggles

These are super hard times for our kids. Dealing with school shutdowns, possible COVID exposures, feeling scared about what happens if they test positive … it’s just a lot for our children. Children are resilient, and many have been able to get through this time with not too many tears or lasting effects.

But many children are truly struggling, and it’s important to look for signs that they might need help beyond some extra snuggles and reassuring words. Sometimes you can easily tell that your child is struggling—they are having constant meltdowns, or seem depressed or on edge. Other signs are a little less obvious.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, signs that your child may be struggling with their mental health include sleep disturbances, being extra clingy, changes in eating habits, regressions like bedwetting, not wanting to go to school, trouble concentrating, and physical complaints (stomach aches are a big one!).

I hope that my children don’t have to deal with a possible COVID exposure, quarantine, or positive COVID test. But I think we all know that that’s completely wishful thinking. These things all come with the territory when you are sending your child to school in the middle of a pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t all be prepared. I know that for me, thinking this all through—and becoming more aware of what to expect and how to prepare my kids and myself—has really helped.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Now, let’s just hope that this pandemic is over sooner than later, because all of this just freaking sucks, doesn’t it?

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