Preparing for Back to School During COVID-19
How do we prepare our kids and families for the upcoming school season during COVID-19? Infectious disease specialist Cynthia Snider, MD, and clinical psychologist David Gutterman, PhD, answer your questions on back-to-school health and safety in this week's 2 Your Well-Being segment with WFMY News 2.
Whether kids have school virtually or face-to-face, it's important to get back-to-school vaccines. What steps should we take to make sure our kids are ready?
Snider: “So I think, especially any child that's heading into kindergarten, you should definitely fulfill checking in with your pediatricians to see what vaccines are required to go back to school. I think measles, mumps, rubella is always key, and then also as we head into this winter, the flu vaccine. Though [the flu vaccine is] not mandated by schools, it's highly recommended. And I think anything that we can do in order to keep our kids healthy and keep them in school in person is the best way to go. I think these past few months have been very disruptive to a childhood vaccine series, and so it's very important to get caught up if you've had a delay in your kid's vaccine series.”
How do you prepare your child mentally for this new school year?
Gutterman: “So if you're going back into the school setting, first and foremost, talk to your children, regardless of their age, about their feelings about it first, before you impose your own feelings. Do a gut check about how you are feeling about it yourself first of all, because kids can pick up on our own feelings, and it's important to try to maintain a sense of calm regardless of how anxious you might be about it.
“But talk to your children. Find out how they're feeling about going back. Each child will have a different experience, depending upon what this period of time has been like for them. If there's been a loss in the family or parents have been furloughed, it could have been a very stressful time. Some kids will be very excited about going back to school, so check in with them too to see how they're feeling. And make sure that along the way, you continually look for signs of any significant stress.
What are the health risks associated with COVID-19 among kids and teens? Are they different?
Snider: “… We know that there's probably a fair amount of younger children that have mild to maybe very – I mean incredibly, like no symptoms. I think that that is the challenge. This is still a respiratory viral infection and so, [symptoms like] fevers… body aches, sore throat - all those symptoms as well as some GI symptoms, such as diarrhea and vomiting can exist as part of a COVID-19 disease.
“I think the challenge is that as we start heading into the fall as well as winter, there's definitely an overlap with influenza that probably has that same clinical picture. And, I think the concern with when you go back to school, is all kids should – [and] family members – should definitely be aware of their children [and] how they're doing – their symptoms. Especially if they're sick with any sore throat, or definitely a fever, or a cough. That is a point where your kid should be assessed for their symptoms, either by phoning in or doing a televisit with their pediatrician…
“Some teenager’s [symptoms] probably are closer to what you would see in adults, however, in general, there's still so much to be learned about pediatric COVID-19. I think the key thing though for the fall, to keep your classroom and your community healthy, is that if your kids are sick, definitely keep them out of school and figure out how to assess them… and again, if somebody in the household is positive, there is a good chance that the other household members, including kids, can also contract COVID-19. So health departments do recommend that everybody in the household quarantines if one person is sick and doesn't attend school or work for the next 14 days.”
What advice do you have for parents as they are preparing for this next school year?
Gutterman: “I think it's important, as Dr. Snider said, to make sure that the kids also have an understanding - just because they're going back to school, for example, doesn't mean that it's going to be like any other school year. This is going to be a different school year. It's important to talk about those differences in advance to make sure that the children have an understanding, regardless of their age, that it's important that they comply with whatever the guidelines are at the school. So, the hand-washing and masks and distancing are all just as important, even though they're going back to school.”
What do I do if the kids aren’t going to go back to school and they are disappointed?
Gutterman: “First and foremost, take time to reflect on your own disappointment, because there are a lot of disappointed parents, as well, that their kids aren’t going back to school. Because truly, it can mean a great deal for parents, right? That they are having their kids at home. So, first deal with yourself and your spouse, and talk about it, and have your own feelings clear. Then really talk to your children, but first and foremost, listen to what they have to say before you impose your own thoughts and feelings about it. Hear what their disappointments are.
“You want to be encouraging. This is not going to last forever, though it feels like it. And you want to talk to them about what exactly it is that they’re going to be missing most, because that’s going to help inform you how you’re going to move forward with helping them make the most of the time that they’re going to be at home. So, what kinds of things might you replicate or come close to replicating? Whether it’s social activities, whether it’s artistic activities – whatever the kinds of things are that they’re going to be missing the most. We can’t replicate it exactly, obviously, but if you understand what those things are, we can help them fulfill as much of that as possible and make the most of the time that they are, in fact, going to be learning from home.”
How do we balance work, life, school when we are all at home?
Gutterman: “That’s quite the challenge, right? That’s the thing that has so many parents and families worried, because so many parents are feeling like they’re being put in a position of being home instructors...
“I think it’s important, as I said at the outset of when we began talking, that you set up these structures in the household that’s comparable to the one you might have in a school setting. Talk with your children, let them be a part of that, and make sure that you set up certain subjects during certain times of the day that as parents – if both parents are working from home – you take breaks at certain times during the day when kids might need help with particular types of subjects. You want to make sure you have break times where kids can get up and move around and that sort of thing, but parents need to have time to – again, if you’re working from home – to accomplish their work. So, if you’re fortunate to have a 2 parent household where both are at home, you can tag-team with each other, and should do that throughout the day.
“But It’s important to try to have structure, to replicate what a day would typically look like – bedtime, wake time, all those things – that would parallel something similar to what the kids have, so that also when they do transition back to school, that transition will be far, far easier.”