As summer comes to an end, a new school year is officially upon us. Last year, most kids spent a majority of the year at home doing virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this school year, thanks to the COVID vaccine, many schools will resume in-person learning.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) both agree that students should return to one hundred percent in-person school in the fall,” says Dr. Sara Siddiqui, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics and pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health. “We know that last year’s virtual and remote learning model was not ideal for students. Many suffered from emotional and mental health issues due to isolation and absence of connections being made that occur with in-person schooling.”
According to one study, depression and anxiety have nearly doubled in adolescents and younger students. And new reports from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that performance in reading and math declined universally in children during the 2020-2021 school year.
“Our children have lost so much during this pandemic and during remote learning in terms of interaction with peers, teachers, and other supports they would normally receive in school,” says Dr. Uma S. Levy, MD, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
In other words, returning to school this year will have so many benefits for children. But with COVID-19 still raging due to lower than necessary vaccination rates and the Delta variant surging, many parents may feel a little uneasy about sending their kids to school.
“Wearing a mask, practicing hand hygiene, making sure all vaccinations for school are up to date, and staying home if sick are all measures that are important to discuss,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
Until kids under 12 can get the COVID-19 vaccine, there will be some risks associated with in-person school. Here are the top safety measures to keep in mind to lower your child’s risk of infection as much as possible.
How to keep kids safe from COVID this school year
Make sure they wear a mask
It’s not always easy to keep masks on kids—especially young kids—but this is crucial for keeping kids who are too young to be vaccinated safe.
“A mask acts as source control for the person wearing one by containing respiratory droplets (which is the way SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses spread) and prevents the people around them from inhaling those droplets and potentially contracting the infection,” says Dr. Levy.
Universal mask-wearing is recommended by the CDC and AAP as one of the mitigation measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and especially the much more contagious Delta variant. “In order to protect our most vulnerable children under 12 and immune-compromised children, teachers and staff in a school setting, universal mask use is recommended,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
If your kids are struggling with keeping their masks on, here are a few ways to encourage them to keep them on, according to Dr. Levy.
- Wear your mask. Children learn by example and are highly influenced by their parents, siblings, and peers. If they see their parents modeling proper mask-wearing behavior, they will follow suit.
- Be sure to have your child practice wearing a mask whenever possible. This will make it a more natural behavior and less of a struggle.
- Make sure our child’s mask is comfortable and fits well. Comfort will ensure that your child is compliant with wearing their mask. 100% cotton, three-layer breathable fabric masks are adequate for filtering out most pathogens. A standard procedural or surgical mask worn under a cloth one offers even more protection (about as much as an N95 mask), if your child can tolerate that. There are also KF94 and KN95 masks manufactured in Korea and China respectively which are also very effective.
Practice good hand hygiene
“Be sure to tell kids to wash hands before eating or removing their mask,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water is ideal, otherwise use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. This is the way to prevent all viral spread. Get a timer and set it for 20 seconds to practice the time spent in hand washing.”
Have your child keep extra masks in his or her backpack
Dr. Levy suggests discussing with your child why he or she needs to wear a mask regularly, and to make sure they have extra masks on hand.
“One parent told me that she described COVID-19 to her child as a ‘jumpy virus’ that can quickly spread from one person to another, I think this is a great way of describing it,” Dr. Levy said. “With older children, you can discuss how we all need to do our part to keep each other safe, especially those in our family who are older (like Grandma and Grandpa), those who may not have strong immune systems, and those who may be too young to get the vaccine.”
Have your child carry small hand sanitizers in his or her backpack
In addition to reminding your child wash their hands frequently, make sure they keep hand sanitizers in their backpack. “Instruct your child to sanitize his or her hands frequently, such as before and after eating, before and after blowing their nose or touching their face, after using the bathroom, and whenever they feel they need to,” says Dr. Levy. “If your child tends to bite his or her nails, now is the time to work on trying to curb that behavior, especially in school and out in public.”
Be sure to talk with your children about returning to school in person
Pediatricians, parents, and teachers are well aware of increases in depression and anxiety among our youth that was made worse by the isolation and shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Dr. Siddiqui. While it comes with risks, going to school in person with proper safety measures in place will ensure that all children are able to be present in an optimal learning environment.
“Please talk to your kids about any issues troubling them,” Dr. Siddique encourages. “Visit the school prior to the first day of school if they were home the previous year to help ease their fears about returning to school.”
If your child is sick or not feeling well, have them stay home
One of the most important things you can do to keep your own child and other children at school safe is to keep your child home if they’re not feeling well. “Be sure to visit your doctor or pediatrician to review signs and symptoms to look out for and get tested for COVID 19,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “It is important to follow quarantine and isolation guidelines if a test is positive or an exposure has taken place.”