Nearly a year into the coronavirus health crisis, government leaders have committed to reopening schools. And pediatricians say it’s time.
Contributors: Dr. David Shafran, K Health Pediatrics Lead, Dr. Chelsea Johnson, K Health Associate Pediatrics Lead
It doesn’t matter how seasoned you are as a parent. Whether your child is three or 13 — parenting during a global pandemic is a doozy.
No one understands this more than K Health pediatricians Dr. David Shafran and Dr. Chelsea Johnson.
They’ve navigated their own childrens’ struggles with remote learning, and have seen firsthand the anxiety and regression of patients due to lack of social interaction and in-person support.
Now that government leaders have committed to safely reopen schools, Dr. Shafran and Dr. Johnson want to help parents understand why returning to the classroom is so important.
They’ve shared answers to common questions to help empower parents with the information needed to make the best decision for their families.
Is it safe for my kid to go back to school?
The simple answer is yes.
Research has shown that COVID is more likely to spread in social situations outside of school, where guidelines to mitigate the spread are not formalized.1
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a detailed strategy to help schools reduce the spread. Each state’s Department of Health has its own as well.2 Evidence shows when these strategies are correctly implemented, they work.
“When children are in a structured environment that’s explicitly set up to reduce transmission, it’s safe,” said Dr. Shafran.
Schools are also being creative to ensure all students can practice social distancing. Dr. Johnson thinks schools can hold classes in the auditorium and gym, or use local buildings like libraries.
“You can always talk with your school administration about how the CDC standards are being put into place,” said Dr. Johnson.
Of course, there are some exceptions in children with comorbidities. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have a specific concern. You can also complete the free COVID-19 assessment in the K Health app to help you better understand the symptoms and risks.
Isn’t my child safer at home?
According to pediatricians, the concept of “safety” has changed since the pandemic began — and not just because of the virus.
“What you need to consider is the child’s mental health, academic progress, and development,” said Dr. Shafran.
A child may be quarantined and kept physically safe from the virus. But they could experience anxiety from being separated from friends, stress from struggling with classes, or behavioral regression from being stuck inside.4
“We’re all social creatures, and play and being with people is a time for development, and keeps us happy,” said Dr. Shafran.
“We’re seeing a vast majority of students anxious about school because they’re having trouble with remote learning and failing,” added Dr. Johnson. “There’s been a rise in pediatric emergency room visits because of anxiety and suicidal thoughts around academic performance.”
So while staying safe from the virus is an obvious concern, it’s important for parents to weigh the benefits and risks of keeping their kids at home.
Why is there such a push to get students back to school?
School keeps children safe — and not just from the virus.
The lack of socialization, increased screen time, and time spent isolated at home has become a huge concern for pediatricians — arguably more than the actual virus is.6
But there’s more to it than that.
Research shows that since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly a third of school-aged children worldwide haven’t had access to remote education.7 And as many as 3 million in the US haven’t attended school since March 2020.8
This is happening because many children live below the poverty level, and lack the WiFi or technology needed for online classes. Others’ parents may not speak English, so don’t have the at-home support needed to learn remotely.
Even students with access to what they need are failing, including those in Dr. Johnson’s childrens’ school.
“School is also the place where many kids get their only meal of the day and their only socialization with other kids,” said Dr. Johnson. “Their home environment may be difficult, and they rely on school to be their safe space.”
Children are missing out on the skills they need to thrive because of their family’s socioeconomic situation. This, coupled with concerns about mental health and development, is why there’s been such a push to reopen schools.
Of course, talk to your doctor if there’s a comorbidity or alternative reason to why you’re concerned about your own child going back to school.
There’s still no cure — how is my child at less of a risk now than they were last year?
So much is now known about how the disease manifests in children. And so much more is known about how to protect them from it.
This time last year no one knew anything, and we all took aggressive measures to protect our children from the spread. And to keep them from spreading it.
“My husband and I kept our kids home at the beginning,” said Dr Johnson. “They hated virtual learning — and started to hate school.”
Now that guidelines exist specifically outlining how to keep students safe in school, Dr. Johnson and Dr. Shafran’s kids are happily back in school — and have had little to no issue with COVID.
“I’ve become more and more of a proponent of having children in school, even despite new strains coming out,” said Dr. Shafran.
Studies of the vaccine in children are also underway — and pediatricians are excited about them. Many educators across the country have already been vaccinated, further supporting that the time to reopen schools is now.
“Many teachers have received the vaccine, but not everyone yet. Delaying reopening for all school staff in the country to be vaccinated is not reasonable,” said Dr. Johnson. “With that said, they should be supported as frontline workers. The CDC guidelines focus on making sure they have proper protective equipment, sanitizing and social distancing processes, and ventilation.”
Is screen time really that bad?
When your child is home 24/7, screen time can be inevitable. Between school and trying to keep them busy, parents are doing the best they can. The point here is getting them back to school and off the screen will only be positive for their social development.
According to Dr. Shafran, “Everytime a kid is on screen, it takes away from a situation that builds resilience. Whether it be an uncomfortable interaction with a classmate, a nervous feeling in their belly, or having to think fast on their feet.”
When on screen — whether it be for Zoom, gaming, or television — kids distract themselves from normal everyday discomforts. They can disconnect, which can prevent them from developing the social skills they need to succeed in life.
How do I prepare my child to go back to school?
“I counsel parents to try and make things as normal as possible for your kids,” said Dr. Shafran. “And being in school is normal.”
“Kids love to rise to the occasion,” he added. Task your child with wearing their mask or socially distancing like you would spell a certain word or scoring a goal. They’ll likely try hard to make you proud.
“I tell parents to answer whatever questions your child has calmly so they don’t take on your stress or concerns,” said Dr. Johnson. “They need to know that they’ll be safe and that their school is ready for their return.”
Dr. Johnson is also a proponent of equipping children with additional support in the classroom once they are back. Specifically, offering mental health check-ins and access to counsellors, therapists, and nurses if a student seems overwhelmed, anxious or stressed. Talk to your school administration to see how they’re handling this.
She also advises parents to explain to their children that they need to speak a bit louder in class with their mask on and follow directions about social distancing.
How do I know if my child has COVID?
This is an incredibly common question from parents.
Kids are germy — and it’s winter. It can be hard to tell whether a runny nose or fever is a symptom of something seasonal or a symptom of COVID-19. It’s important parents keep both possibilities in mind.
If you’re worried your child is sick with something more than a cold, get in touch with your pediatrician.
“The uniqueness of pediatrics is that we check in with our patients constantly,” said Dr. Johnson. “If you’re worried about a symptom, reach out. The K Health app is especially helpful for parents who just want a quick gut check,” she continued.
“We’ll tell you the worrisome symptoms to check out for, and if you need to quarantine per the CDC guidelines,” added Dr. Shafran. “And we’ll keep checking in, to make sure all is good.”
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