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Back To School During COVID-19: 9 Tips To Keep Your Kids Safe

Aug 24, 2021 By Devin Collins
Kids lined up outside school wearing masks

This fall, many kids will be returning to in-person learning for the first time since the start of the pandemic. But as schools welcome students back to the classroom, many parents are growing increasingly worried about their children’s safety, as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to spread.

If your child is returning to in-person schooling this year, you may be concerned about their risk of getting and transmitting COVID-19, particularly if they aren’t yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. At this time, the American Academy of Pediatrics is still strongly recommending in-person schooling this year, while the CDC has deemed it a top priority. Fortunately, there are several ways you can protect your family this back-to-school season.

1. Make sure all eligible family members are vaccinated

The best way to protect your child is to vaccinate all eligible family members including children ages 12 years and older, older siblings, parents, grandparents, and other members of your household. Doing so will help protect you and your family members from getting sick if your child brings the virus home from school, as well as protect your child from getting infected at home and transmitting it to others. All three COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be effective at reducing the risk of infection, severe illness, and hospitalization from COVID-19.

If your child is 12 years or older, they are eligible to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which currently is the only COVID-19 vaccine authorized for children under 18. Research on the effectiveness and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine in children under 12 is currently underway.

If your child is under the age of 12, it can be helpful to talk to them about the importance of vaccines so they know what to expect when it’s their turn to get vaccinated. Starting the conversation now can also help them feel empowered and less scared when an appointment becomes available. Younger children may feel anxious knowing they can’t receive the vaccine yet, so be sure to reassure them that public health experts are working on making the vaccines available to kids their age as soon as possible and that there are ways they can continue to protect themselves in the meantime. Learn more about how to talk to your children about COVID-19 vaccines here.

2. Catch up on other immunizations

Since the start of the pandemic, many families have put off routine checkups and healthcare visits, leaving several kids and teens behind on their recommended immunizations. It’s extremely important that kids stay up to date on these shots in addition to the COVID-19 vaccine, in order to be protected against other serious illnesses like measles, mumps, whooping cough, and meningitis, which can have lasting health complications and result in hospitalization or even death. Public health experts have warned that even the slightest decline in these immunizations can compromise herd immunity and lead to outbreaks of these otherwise preventable illnesses. You can find a schedule of the recommended vaccines by age here. If you’re unsure whether your child needs a specific shot or have other questions about routine vaccination, please contact your provider for guidance.

Additionally, as the start of flu season coincides with the beginning of the school year, experts recommend that everyone over the age of six months get a flu vaccination as early as September. The flu vaccine is helpful in both reducing the number of flu cases, and reducing the severity of illness if someone does catch the flu, helping to keep hospitals and emergency rooms from becoming overwhelmed as flu season overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic. Read here for more information on flu and COVID-19.

3. Communicate the importance of mask wearing

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending universal masking in schools for everyone 2 years and older, regardless of vaccination status. While many schools have established mask mandates in line with this guidance, these policies vary greatly by state. That being said, we urge you to consider setting your own masking policy for your family and to encourage your child to wear a mask at school, even if their school isn’t requiring them. Talk to your child about the importance of wearing a mask so they can feel empowered to wear one at school even if their peers aren’t. Remind them that it’s possible for someone to be infected and transmit the virus even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms, and that wearing masks is the best way to protect themselves and others who aren’t vaccinated. Kids often model their parents’ behavior, so set a good example by consistently wearing masks in public settings and demonstrating how to wear them properly. Kids may fidget, play with, or be inclined to take off their mask if it doesn’t feel comfortable on their face. Set them up for success by choosing masks with two or more layers of breathable fabric, that fit snugly against their nose, mouth, and chin. Masks with nose wires that prevent air from leaking out the top of the mask are optimal.

If your child isn’t used to wearing a mask for an extended period of time or if this is their first time wearing one in a classroom, have them practice at home first, by starting with shorter periods of time and gradually working up. This is a good time to remind them not to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth when removing their mask and to wash their hands after they do so. It can also help to let your child pick out a mask in their favorite color or with their favorite character on it. They may be more willing to wear their mask if they feel it reflects their interests and they had a choice in the matter.

4. Discuss school policies ahead of time

Your child may be worried or anxious about returning to the classroom during a pandemic, especially if they aren’t yet vaccinated. While it’s important to acknowledge these feelings as normal, you can help them feel prepared for the transition by discussing their school’s safety measures and precautions. Talking about what might look different in the classroom this year, whether it be assigned lunchroom seating, plexiglass barriers, or regular COVID-19 testing, for instance, can help your child know what to expect, as well as ease concerns about their own safety.

5. Encourage good hygiene

While vaccines and masks have proven to be the most effective tools at preventing the spread of COVID-19, practicing social distancing, effective hand-washing, and good hygiene can further protect your child from getting sick this fall. In addition to the safety precautions your child’s school has outlined, talk to your child about the importance of washing or sanitizing their hands before eating, after touching high-touch surfaces like playground equipment, using the restroom, and after coming home from school. Practice at home by having your child wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. A trick to encouraging 20 seconds of handwashing is having your child wash a toy while washing their hands or singing one of their favorite songs. Singing “Happy Birthday” twice, for instance, will indicate when they can stop. If soap and water aren’t available, they should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. You should also remind your child to cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, throw the tissue in the trash, and then wash their hands. Finally, while schools should be incorporating social distancing into their classrooms, remind your child to stay at least three to six feet away from others as much as possible, both indoors and outdoors. This includes avoiding giving hugs, holding hands, or giving high fives.

6. Pack supplies

In addition to the usual notebooks and pencils, you should also expect to buy a few additional school supplies this year. First, stock up on extra masks and lots of hand sanitizer. It’s easy for kids to misplace or lose these items, so pack back ups in their backpack so they don’t need to borrow from others. Make sure to label these items with your child’s name so they can avoid accidentally sharing with others. Consider buying hand sanitizer that can clip to their backpack for easy use throughout the day, and packing some with their lunch or snack so they can sanitize their hands before eating. You might also send your kids to school with tissue and wet wipes to limit their movement throughout the classroom. Finally, pack up extra pens, pencils, paper, and other daily supplies so your child doesn’t need to borrow from a classmate.

7. Keep an open line of communication

Adapting to a new school routine after a year of virtual or distanced learning can be stressful for many kids. While some may be eager to reunite with their classmates, others may be anxious about changes in friendships, having to socialize again, or being separated from their families at home. Likewise, they may be overwhelmed by changes to their daily routine or the uncertainty of the future. Though you may be focused on your child’s physical safety this back-to-school season, their mental health is equally important. Regularly check in and ask how they are feeling and how things are going with school, friends, or a particular extracurricular activity. Ask how you can help or make things easier for them right now. Listen without interrupting or lecturing, and be careful to avoid dismissing their feelings. Offer reassurance and hope by letting them know that things will get better, while allowing them the space to feel their emotions fully without criticism, judgment, or blame. Remind them that they aren’t alone and you’re here for them every step of the way.

8. Get into a routine

Many families let their normal routines slide over the last year, as they shifted to remote work and virtual learning. With fall just around the corner though, it’s important to help your child reestablish a regular routine so they can function at their best this school year. A good night’s sleep, a nutritious diet, and regular physical activity can keep your child physically healthy, as well boost their mood, productivity, energy, and general outlook on life. Enforce regular bedtimes and wake up times, even on weekends, while limiting screen time an hour before bed. Try to stick to consistent meal times, including a healthy breakfast before school. You can even make a checklist for your child to follow in the morning and before bed to help them develop healthy habits.

9. Keep them home if they’re sick

If your child is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, we recommend keeping them home from school and scheduling a testing appointment, regardless of their vaccination status.. You can learn more about COVID-19 testing at One Medical here. We advise that your child remains isolated from non-household contacts until:

  • At least 10 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared

AND

  • They have had no fever for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication

AND

  • Other respiratory symptoms have improved

If you have questions about caring for your child or your child’s symptoms, you can use the One Medical app to contact our virtual medical care team 24/7.

Symptoms that should be addressed immediately, and may warrant visiting an ER, include the following:

  • Any fever in children less than 12 weeks of age
  • Fever above 104°F
  • Fever for longer than 4 days in a child of any age
  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Ribs pulling in with each breath
  • Dehydration (no urine for 8 hours, dry mouth, no tears when crying)
  • Not alert or interacting when awake
  • Seizures
  • Fever or cough that improves but then returns or worsens

For more information on COVID-19 and kids, see here. If you have other questions about your child's health this back-to-school season, reach out to your primary care provider.

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Devin Collins

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.