Back to school safety during the COVID-19 pandemic – tips from a physician and parent

In prior years, back to school was relatively simple. You got the kids back in their normal bedtime routine, bought some new school supplies and clothes, and they started on the planned date. But as we’re all painfully aware, this year is very different because of COVID-19. Many parents are struggling with decisions about what to do with school and how to keep their children and other loved ones safe.

 “Unfortunately, we are in some uncharted territory. No one has all the answers. As parents, we need to be involved in the conversation and understand the steps the school has taken. Then, we need to decide if we are comfortable with that. Everyone’s situation is different and we don’t know what the future holds, so being open minded is important. If the situation changes, we need to reevaluate,” describes Dr. Susan Ovella, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Lakeview Regional Physician Group.

The choice can be especially difficult for parents of children with pre-existing conditions such as asthma.

“Thankfully most children are doing well with this virus as opposed to older adults, but we have also seen what this virus has done to people with pre-existing conditions. The risk is clearly higher for anyone (including children) with a pre-existing condition,” states Dr. Ovella. “It is something to consider or put in the risk column. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.”

Questions to ask your child’s school

If your child is slated to return to school or if you are still trying to decide what to do, here are some common questions you might want to ask:

  1. Will masks be required for students? If so, when and where should they be worn?
  2. Am I required to provide a mask for my child or will masks be provided? Will extras be on-hand if my child forgets or loses their mask?
  3. What transportation-related changes should I be aware of? (e.g. pick-up/drop-off protocol, changes to bus routes/times/protocol, etc.)?
  4. Will physical distancing be set up within classrooms? What other guidelines on distancing will be adopted that my child should be aware of?
  5. Will extracurricular activities resume? If so, what precautions or protocols should I be aware of? Will students or staff at our school be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 and what will happen if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19?

Pediatrician-approved safety tips

If you have made the difficult decision to send your child back to school, now is the time to prepare for whatever that may look like. Talk to you children about how school will be different this year and reinforce safety tips and healthy habits.

Some things to keep top of mind are:

1. Hand hygiene

As you’ve likely done these past few months, reinforce the importance of handwashing to keep germs and infections at bay. Keeping little hands clean during the day can reduce the risk of spreading colds by up to 21% and reduce diarrheal illnesses by up to 31%, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Teach your children to wash their hands often. They should scrub vigorously with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Now more than ever, it’s critical to wash hands before eating, after using the bathroom, after recess and anytime they’ve touched toys or kids playing in common areas. Also, be sure to pack hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in their backpack.

“It is also a good idea for children to get in the habit of washing their hands as soon as they get home from school,” mentions Dr. Ovella.

2. Masking

Wearing a mask or face covering is the best way to stop the spread of respiratory droplets and are critical when proper physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as on the school bus or in a classroom. However, getting children to wear a mask – never mind properly and for a prolonged period of time – can be challenging.

 “Set a good example for your child. As a parent, if you wear a mask your child is more likely to accept wearing a mask,” states Dr. Ovella.

“Also, masks take practice. The more a child gets used to wearing a mask, especially around people who are not in their household, the more likely they are to adjust to that when they go to school,” adds Dr. Ovella.

girls getting ready for their first day back to school with mask in hand

Scott Montgomery, father of two and chief operating officer at Lakeview Regional Medical Center shares that letting children pick out masks with themes that interest them can make it more fun.

“Here is a picture of my girls getting ready for their first day back to school with mask in hand. They understand the importance of wearing a mask because we have practiced wearing all summer long.”

Some other mask tips for children include:

  • Look for masks with adjustable straps that help to provide a better fit for their small faces.
  • Wash masks after each use.
  • Have enough on hand that you can get through the week without added stress.
  • For older children, DIY mask projects can help make masking more fun. (Just be sure the masks are made according to the CDC guidelines)

3. Keeping proper distance

Your school has likely outlined rules and taken precautions for the proper physical distancing. But it’s a good idea to reinforce these behaviors with your child.

“One of the most difficult things is going to be helping kids stay diligent about social distancing and how important it is,” describes Dr. Ovella. “I think our biggest challenge as parents is going to be how to get them in that mindset.”

Remember:

  • While your child will be excited to see friends, remind them to avoid touching and crowding each other.
  • Encourage them to stagger turns playing on playground equipment.
  • Remind them not to share food or drink and to avoid giving high fives and fist bumps.

While social distancing is imperative, parents must also recognize that socialization is still extremely important.

“Socialization is a big part of our make-up. Both adults and children are struggling with the effects of this pandemic,” describes Dr. Ovella. “Children need to connect with others, but it needs to be done in a safe way.”

Parents should check in with children and watch for signs of mental health struggles, especially among teens.

“The lack of socialization has real effects. Being aware and understanding of that may help us make better decisions,” describes Dr. Ovella.

4. Practice healthy habits

Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or not, practicing healthy habits consistently will offer lifelong benefits.

  • Remind your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow when they are not wearing a mask.
  • Remind them not to put their hands/fingers in their mouths or touch their face, nose or eyes.
  • Keep your child home if they are sick.
  • Ensure kids are eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet.
  • Establish consistent sleep routines. A good night’s rest is important to keep kids healthy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10-13 hours a night for 3-5 year olds, 9-12 hours for 6-12 year olds and 8-10 hours for 13-18 year olds.
  • Make sure children are getting enough physical activity. Pre-school kids should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development. Children and adolescents ages 6-17 should do at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services.

“If recess is allowed, it is going to be a real challenge for schools. Social distancing, masking and aggressive hand hygiene will be important. If recess is not allowed, we will still need to recognize that physical activity is critical for kids,” describes Dr. Ovella.

Recess can help improve concentration, mood, school performance and sleep.

“If we aren’t able to allow kids to have that physical activity time at school, we will need to find a way to make sure it is happening at home by going for a family walk, bike ride or playing in the yard,” adds Dr. Ovella.

5. Stay up-to-date on wellness visits

Regular visits to your child’s pediatrician are important to manage your child’s health and physical, emotional and social development. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant decline in children seen for their yearly well-child visits. This has resulted in delays in vaccination schedules, screenings and referrals to specialists. Pediatricians are concerned that delayed vaccinations can result in an outbreak of vaccine-preventable illnesses.

 “One of the most important things you can do it make sure your children are up-to-date and continuing their vaccination schedules,” reminds Dr. Ovella. “If your child is due for their well-child visit, a vaccination or has a chronic condition that needs to be managed, please do not delay care.”

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