Everything Parents Need to Know about Post-Pandemic Playdates
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“Mama, I’ll be able to see my friends’ happy faces again!” my 5-year-old exclaimed when I told him his school planned to instate a mask-optional policy outdoors. When I saw his genuine excitement, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty; I had almost not told him about the mask rules being relaxed, so that he would continue to wear his while on the playground. After all, if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last 18 months, it’s masks = safer, right?
With our youngest family members remaining unvaccinated as states continue to open up and regulations are relaxed, parents are left wondering how to navigate this next phase of the COVID pandemic. Yet the sun is shining through the clouds of quarantine and kids (and their parents) are itching for companionship. But what levels of interaction are really ok at this point? Are playdates really safe? Should we all just hang outside until winter?
We’re guessing you’re just as confused as we are, so we spoke to a few experts in search of answers. Here is what they want you to know about managing playdates and other social gatherings for kids in this COVID era.
We are still in a pandemic
All of the experts I spoke with emphasized a similar point: we cannot consider ourselves post-pandemic just yet. “I know it feels like [it’s over] but the pandemic is very much raging in many other parts of the world,” notes Helen Jenkins, MSc, PhD, infectious disease expert and assistant professor at Boston University. Because the U.S. has a highly varying rate of vaccination, there is still concern for surges in the coming months. “I would say we are enjoying doing more and we are looking forward to a fairly normal summer,” says Jenkins, who is also a mom of two kids under the age of 12, “but coronaviruses are seasonal so we expect an uptick again in the fall and how big that is will really determine if we are post-pandemic.”
As she explained to me, the rate of vaccination in a certain area in addition to local case rates plays a huge factor in how to proceed when dealing with kids in social or public situations. If you’re in an area that has high vaccination rates and low case rates, your unvaccinated children will have a much greater barrier of protection than if you’re in an area with low vaccination rates and high case rates. So, it’s important to consider your personal location when making these decisions.
Having indoor playdates can be safe, in some cases
Having playdates outdoors is always a definite plus, as Dr. Jenny Bentwood, MD, a family practice physician in NH, tells me. “It decreases risk of transmission,” she notes, “and it’s better for kids to be outdoors anyway.” After being stuck indoors for the better part of the past year, I know our family is itching to spend more time outside So if you can swing it, it doesn’t hurt to get some extra outdoor time whenever we can.
Indoor playdates can be generally safe too, if you live in an area with high vaccination rates. “Communities with lower vaccination rates may have more risk,” says Dr. Lea Lis, child psychiatrist and author of No Shame. “If the COVID rate is very low within your community and [all the members of the households who are 12 or older have been] vaccinated, then it is mostly safe, as long as your child is not high risk for complications of COVID,” she explains.
Kids don’t always need to be masked
This, again, comes back to local incidence rates. “I think that outdoors virtually anywhere kids can go unmasked,” says Jenkins, though she cautions against going completely maskless in a very large, crowded gathering. In an indoor public place, taking masks off is generally safe if case rates are low and vaccination rates are high. Otherwise, says Jenkins, it’s “masks on.”
Serving food at playdates is generally safe
“Serving snacks is likely very low risk,” says Dr. Bentwood, “[but] sharing them (as toddlers like to do) is higher.” To mitigate this, hand each child their own snack instead of offering a communal bowl or plate. Remind them that while sharing is so kind, they’re going to enjoy their snack individually for the time being.
And of course, there is always the cardinal rule to keep germs at bay: “Children [should always] wash with water and soap and/or sanitize their hands before having snacks,” reminds Dr. Iman Taheri. The era of having hand sanitizer on us at all times isn’t quite over yet, so don’t be shy about giving your kids a generous squeeze of that magic soap before snacks and meals.
Public restrooms are still … public restrooms
If you’re out in public and your kids have to use the bathroom (as kids often do), there’s not much you can do to avoid a communal restroom. Besides the additional recommendation of wearing a mask, you should handle the public restroom situation as you did pre-pandemic. “I still wear a mask and mask my 3-year-old when I go into public restrooms,” says Dr. Bentwood. “I carry wipes and wipe down toilet seats, handles, etc. Hopefully, people were doing the wipe-down pre-COVID, too,” she adds.
We may not be back to the before-times, but as it turns out, your family’s new normal can safely include gatherings and playdates — especially if you’re in an area with high vaccination and low case rates. Be mindful of your location, and if you’re hesitant, err on the side of meeting outdoors or with masks. Being careful is important, and so is getting to see your kids light up at their friends’ happy faces.