Back-to-school during COVID-19

Big changes happen each year when it’s back-to-school time – changes in routine, new classmates and teachers, and new activities. But this year, in addition to wondering if you’re making all of the right decisions in regards to your child’s education, you’re likely wondering if you’re taking all necessary precautions to protect his or her health amidst a global pandemic.

The good news? Staying healthy isn’t complicated. The first steps are to always avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth and cover every cough and sneeze with your elbow or a tissue. But let us walk you through a few additional steps you can take to keep your student – and family – safe when heading back to school!

Masks and handwashing

Whether or not students will have to wear a mask in class all day, it’s a good idea to practice “mask endurance” to make the act of wearing a mask easier when it is required. Getting used to wearing a mask will not only decrease fear and anxiety about the face covering, but will help younger children learn not to touch and fidget with the mask, which will ensure that the mask does its job!

You’ve probably spent the summer teaching your little ones – and teens, too – how to practice proper hand hygiene. But, this year at school, it will be important that everyone continues to wash their hands frequently with soap and water. Hand sanitizer will work if you’re in a pinch, but nothing beats the use of soap and water to fight germs!

Physical distancing

Kids may be getting used to the idea of keeping their distance from friends and family, but the familiar closeness of the classroom environment may cause them to forget that staying 6 feet (or more) apart is still recommended. Schools and teachers are likely making accommodations for this distancing by spacing desks further apart, moving classes to larger rooms, or even having teachers rotate classrooms rather than students.

Some schools may also use outdoor spaces when possible and offer flexibility to go to virtual learning if a student is exposed outside of school, the virus surges, or students experience symptoms. Lunchtime may become something students do at their desks or outdoors in smaller groups rather than eating in large, crowded cafeterias. Be aware of the measures being taken in your child’s school so you can explain the changes and why they’re so important.

Cleaning and disinfecting

The CDC has released guidelines for schools to follow regarding disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas. You still may wish to take special precautions to have your student clean up after school by changing clothes, washing up, and leaving shoes and/or backpacks in an area that is disinfected often. You may also wish to keep up any sanitizing routines that you have done throughout the pandemic including frequently cleaning all high-touch areas, such as counter tops, doorknobs, and light switches.

If there is an older or severely immunocompromised person living in the home, it is advised that the student and the other person practice strict physical distancing: they should spend as much time as possible in separate rooms. When not possible, maintaining a distance of 6 feet or more apart at all times will help reduce asymptomatic spreading. It can be hard to maintain distance between family members, especially with young children, so do the best that you can in your situation to protect the vulnerable.

Immunizations and regular care

Tending to regular care for your child is important – especially during a time when everyone is facing potential exposure to a brand new virus. That means staying up-to-date on immunizations (such as the annual flu shot) and an annual well-child exam. If your child plans to join in on extracurricular activities, it is recommended to talk with your pediatrician for a physical exam to ensure that he or she is equipped to participate.

In addition to keeping a check on your child’s physical health, it is important to make sure he or she is mentally healthy as well. School leaders should be prepared to address a wide range of mental health concerns for both staff and students this year. If you notice your child is experiencing stress from the pandemic or changes related to the pandemic, is feeling pressure to make up for lost time academically or socially, or seems to exhibit signs of anxiety or depression, check with your school to see if they can offer support and talk to your pediatrician.

Nutrition and sleep

Getting proper nutrition and plenty of sleep helps our immune systems work at full capacity to fight off germs, including viruses. Whether it’s COVID-19 or the common cold, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, adequate hydration, and a full night’s rest goes a long way in making sure our bodies are able to fight or recover from minor or major illness.

Breakfast and lunch options offered by school lunch programs are designed to be well-balanced and nutritious, but snacks or sodas with added sugars can sometimes find their way into a school-age child’s diet. Switch sugary snacks for fruit and chips for popcorn or nuts, and, if you need guidance or have specific concerns when it comes to your child’s diet, talk to your child’s doctor!

When it comes to sleep, instituting a nightly routine is a great place to start. Start by getting in some physical activity or playtime after dinner to reduce stress; this makes it easier for kids to fall asleep once their heads hit the pillow. After that, it’s time to wind down and prepare for the next day: bathe or take a shower, brush teeth, set out clothes for the next day, or maybe schedule a family story time or quiet reading time in bed.

This “wind down time” purposely leaves out activities that tend to excite kids, such as board games and devices like phones, laptops, tablets, and television. Blue light emitted from these device screens inhibits the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone, and may make it harder for your child to get to sleep – and make it harder to wake up in the morning! That’s not fun for anyone.

Putting it all together

These tips will help ensure that your child is equipped to face not only the school environment now but throughout the school year as well. A boosted and guarded immune system plus special measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19 and other illnesses equals a happy school year!

Dr. Heather Gilliam is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.

If you need help navigating how to keep your child well this school year, talk with your pediatrician. Don’t have one? Find one here!