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Back-to-school with COVID-19 variants and monkeypox outbreaks

Back-to-school is aligning with two high-profile virus outbreaks. Here's what you need to know as students return to classrooms.

WASHINGTON — Some schools and college campuses across the country are already welcoming students back, while others are soaking up their last weeks of summer vacation. 

But back-to-school looks different this year for many parents with the latest COVID-19 variants and the spread of monkeypox at the top of their minds. 

Here's what you need to know about the two ongoing outbreaks as classes begin and how much of a threat the viruses pose to students. 

RELATED: Here are the most common symptoms for the BA.5 and BA.4 variants

COVID-19 variants and schools

The latest surge in COVID-19 cases is tied to a string of new variants that arose this summer. But as the CDC eases its guidelines on COVID-19, many schools are returning closer to a pre-pandemic normal. 

The health agency on Thursday dropped the requirement for a quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, but still recommends those who test positive to isolate from others for at least five days, regardless of whether they're vaccinated.  

School districts across the U.S. have scaled back their COVID-19 precautions in recent weeks, even before the latest CDC guidance was issued.

For those testing with at-home COVID tests, the FDA now recommends taking three tests in order to avoid a false negative.

Consistent testing is the best way to confirm whether your symptoms are truly COVID-19, according to TEGNA medical expert Dr. Payal Kohli. The subvariants responsible for the latest surge, BA.5 and BA.4, pose a different threat as it also has higher rates of reinfection. 

"Even if you've had infection recently, with omicron, or you've had what we call hybrid immunity, which is infection plus vaccination, which was thought to be the highest level of protection, we are seeing a higher rate of reinfection occurring even in those individuals," she said.

Masks continue to be recommended only in areas where community transmission is deemed high, or if a person is considered at high risk of severe illness.

Masks will be optional in most school districts when classes resume this fall, and some of the nation’s largest districts have dialed back or eliminated COVID-19 testing requirements.

Kohli said as the fall semester begins, the BA. 2.75 variant could be the next COVID-19 wave. The BA. 2.75 variant rapidly spread in India and popped up in many other countries, including the U.S. Similarly to the BA.5 and BA.4 variants, it spreads rapidly and has been shown to get around vaccine immunities and previous infection protection.

Can children get monkeypox? 

While there has only been a very small handful of cases of children getting monkeypox during this current outbreak, it is possible for kids to contract the virus. 

"I think going back to school, in my mind, BA. 5, the flu, other colds and infections, those are certainly bigger concerns than the monkeypox virus," Kohli said.

Although kids who get monkeypox are at a higher risk for serious illness, the virus hasn't been spreading much amongst children. As of mid-August, there have only been five reported cases of children in the U.S. who have tested positive for monkeypox. 

Earlier this month, health officials in Illinois said a daycare worker had been infected with monkeypox and potentially exposed dozens of children at the daycare. Officials from the Illinois Department of Public Health said children and other co-workers were being screened for monkeypox, the Associated Press reported.

“We hope there are no kid cases,” said Julie Pryde, director of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. “But for all we know, the employee could have gotten it from a kid.”

How is monkeypox spread?

Monkeypox, which is a cousin of smallpox, typically spreads through direct contact of infected rashes, scabs or bodily fluids. However, it can spread after prolonged face-to-face contact or during intimate contact such as kissing, cuddling or sex. 

The blister-like rashes are infectious, especially if they are shedding. 

Touching clothes or linens previously touched by someone with monkeypox is another possible form of transmission. The virus can spread as soon as symptoms start and until the blister-like rashes are fully healed. 

Monkeypox also poses a threat to pregnant woman as the virus can spread through their placentas.

"It's not a casual respiratory virus that you can just sort of catch by walking past somebody or anything like that, it really does require close contact with the person who's actively infected," Kohli said.

RELATED: When should you get tested for monkeypox?

RELATED: VERIFY Fact Sheet: Monkeypox outbreak

How do I avoid getting monkeypox? 

Monkeypox raises new areas of concern in terms of spread, such as being conscious of linens and surfaces previously touched by someone with monkeypox. 

For those still traveling during the last few days of summer vacation, be sure to stay in places where sheets and towels are being washed and laundered. Sharing cups and utensils can also spread the virus. 

"If you go to an Airbnb, or you go to a hotel, and it's not entirely clear who was staying there before, whether or not the laundry was done, these are all precautions we need to take with this infection that we didn't have to think about nearly as much with COVID-19 and others," Dr. Kohli suggested. 

Like with any other virus, washing hands is a must in preventing the spread.

Avoiding prolonged contact such as cuddling, kissing and intercourse is also suggested by the CDC to prevent getting infected.

College campuses and outbreaks

College campuses are no stranger to outbreaks, having dealt with the omicron and delta variants within the last school year. The monkeypox outbreak is a lower threat to smaller children, but for teenagers and college students it's key to know how the virus spreads. 

"It is really important for parents to educate their children about how this virus is transmitted, so that they can minimize the chance of outbreaks occurring on campuses," Dr. Kohli said. 

As college and grad students return to dorms and college campuses, they should minimize their sexual partners while cases are still on the rise. It's also important for students to know what a monkeypox rash looks like since many are living in close quarters with each other, Kohli said. 

"This fall is going to be very different from last year for our college kids, because now we're dealing with two different outbreaks happening at the same time," Kohli said. "We still have high levels of BA,5, we potentially might even get the 2.75, which is a more contagious variant of omicron coming and then of course, we have the monkeypox that we're dealing with as well." 

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