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Back to school: Safety tips for returning to school during COVID-19

The New Normal

With the recent government ruling about opening of schools in India for grades 4 and above has sparked a frenzy of discussions over various forums and parent groups. Most parents are against opening of schools fearing the risk of COVID infection in their kids and that constant fear of the impending dreaded third wave.

My son’s school also finally decided to open up. They decided to follow a hybrid pattern of schooling, as in no compulsion to send the child school, thereby giving option of both online and offline schooling.

We opted to send off our kid to school. As much as the physical health of my child is important to me, I am also concerned about his mental well-being. It might be ok for some parents and kids, who still consider it risky to go to school fearing infection and that’s ok. Its their choice!!

It might also be ok for some kids who earlier also never preferred to go out when everything was normal (as I have a section of kids preferring online teaching and not wanting to go to school now as it is convenient for them), so that is also ok. Again its their choice!!

But for kids like my son, who crave for outdoors and friends, it was getting more and more difficult to manage at home, so I thought about giving it a chance with the faith that school is doing their best (Being a pediatrician, that tiny bit of concern about infection still continues to nag me somewhere in my mind, but I decided to give it a shot!!)

Is it safe?

The first question which comes to our mind obviously!! Came to my mind also. To be truthful, nobody actually knows, I also don’t know. But I always see the risk to benefit ratio in any situation.

Though returning to school has taken on new meaning and a new set of worries for parents and other caregivers during this age but the last 18 months of pandemic has taught us at least one important thing that… physical schools are absolutely essential for the overall health and mental and physical well-being of a child. Majority of kids gained significant weight in the last 1 year leading to rise in obesity due to constant sitting, eye troubles, headaches etc. to many having behavioural issues ranging from mild concerns like anger issues, withdrawl, change in eating habits etc. to major disturbances like anxiety, depression etc requiring intervention.

Schools now have a Herculean task of balancing the educational, social and emotional needs of their students along with the health and safety of students and staff in the midst of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. So even if you have decided to send your kid to school, it might be difficult for them to adjust to this new normal. It’s a long way ahead for everything to become normal…maybe now new normal, with the hope that things will go back to the way they were earlier !!

Schools have adopted different approaches (in-school learning, distance learning or hybrid learning) depending on the local government regulations and current status of infection in the community.

In case as a parent you take decision regarding sending your child to school, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of COVID-19 and help your child feel safe and make informed decisions during the pandemic.

Get vaccinated

We know that as of now no vaccines are presently available for kids in India. Although one vaccine has been approved for use in 12 years and above in India, but it has still not been started routinely till date.

So presently, the best bet to protect our kids is that all the adults around the kids get vaccinated, including the family members, school staff like teachers, guards, bus staff etc.

But we know that even though, if all are fully vaccinated, there is still a slight risk of getting the infection.

So the best we can do is to follow certain steps to prevent getting the COVID-19 virus and spreading it to others. These include:

Practice and teach safe distancing

Social distancing, or physical distancing, is the practice of allowing enough space between individuals to reduce the spread of disease. Although it is recommended keeping at least 6 feet (2 meters) of space between yourself and people outside your household, for kids in school even 3 feet is sufficient (when using other prevention strategies like masks). Use either physical distancing depending on feasibility.

But again that might not be practical in some schools or with younger children. Most pediatric organizations and societies emphasize that following strict physical distancing can conflict with ideal academic, social and emotional learning standards. Plus it is also still not clear as to how easily COVID-19 spreads among children. The risks and benefits of in-person schooling for children may mean different levels of social distancing based on the child’s age and developmental stage.

But in general, certain measures can be taken to encourage social distancing during in-person schooling, which include:

  • Creating one-way traffic in school hallways by use of arrows etc.
  • Preferably avoiding meals at schools or else having meals at their desks only.
  • Using outdoor spaces when possible but in small groups and avoid using playground eaquipment
  • Big classrooms with good ventilation (open doors and windows if possible)
  • Reducing the number of children on school buses
  • Spacing desks out and having them all face in the same direction
  • If feasible, using physical barriers, such as plexiglass shields and partitions, to separate facilitators and students
  • Dividing students up into distinct groups that stay together during the school day and reducing interaction between different groups
  • Give bus riders assigned seats and require them to wear a face masks while on the bus. Encourage students who have other ways to get to school, including walking or biking, to use those options.

Keeping hands clean

  • Practice hand-washing at home with your child and explain why it’s important to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before and after eating, coughing/sneezing, or adjusting a face mask. To prevent rushing, suggest washing hands for as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
  • When hand-washing isn’t available, train them to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Explain that they should avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth frequently.
  • Schools should encourage routines that encourage frequent hand-washing and following good respiratory etiquettes, such as asking children to cover their mouths and noses with their elbows or tissues when they cough or sneeze and then washing their hands.
  • If your plan to send your child for in-person schooling, practice and develop daily routines before and after school that foster healthy habits, for e.g. packing a back-up face mask and hand sanitizer in the morning and washing their hands as soon as they come home.

Normalize wearing a mask

Very important and one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infection.

Consider these tips:

  • Wearing cloth face masks should be a priority especially when it’s hard to maintain social distance, such as on the bus stop for drop-off or pickup, and when entering the school.
  • Have multiple cloth face masks available for your child. Provide your child with a clean mask and back-up mask each day and a clean, re-sealable bag for them to store the mask when they can’t wear it, such as at snack times.
  • Label your child’s mask clearly so it’s not confused with another child’s.
  • Practice with them as to how to properly put on and take off cloth face masks while avoiding touching the cloth portions.
  • Remind your child that they should clean their hands before and after touching their mask.
  • Instruct your child to never share or trade masks with others.
  • Talk to your child about the importance of wearing a face mask and model wearing them as a family.
  • Discuss with your child why some people may not be able to wear face masks for medical reasons.
  • Don’t place a face mask on a child younger than age 2, a child who has any breathing problems, or a child who has a condition that would prevent him or her from being able to remove the mask without help.

Clean and disinfect

Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces can help reduce the risk of illness. This includes frequently touched items such as doorknobs, faucets, keyboards etc. in school.

Stay home if sick

You should monitor your child each day for signs of any illness like fever, cough, runny nose, upset tummy etc.

Although daily temperature screening might be done, but firstly many of these symptoms overlap with other conditions, such as the common cold, allergies and influenza, the effectiveness of this screening can be limited and secondly temperature screening itself might not be a good indicator of infection, as most kids are symptomatic carriers.

So to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection well as other germs, children should stay home from school and other activities if they or anybody else in the family has any signs of illness or a fever.

Do not skip routine vaccinations

One thing which was universally seen over last year was that most parents skipped routine immunizations including the annual flu shots. Because of this suddenly we had a flurry of flu and flu like illnesses in last 2 months.

Whether classes are happening at school or at home, make sure your child is up to date with all recommended vaccines. All school-aged children should get a flu shot each season. Getting a flu vaccine is especially important this season because the flu and COVID-19 cause similar common signs and symptoms. Although the flu shot does not protect against COVID-19, it can reduce the risk of the flu and its complications.

In case of exposure to a probable COVID infection at school, what to do?

If you have decided to send your child to school, take steps to be prepared for possible exposure to COVID-19.

  • Make sure that your emergency contact information and school pickup and drop-off information is updated with the school. If that list includes anyone who is at risk of illness, add an alternate contact.
  • Talk to the school as in how they will communicate with families when a positive case or exposure to someone with COVID-19 happens and how they plan to maintain student privacy.
  • Develop a plan to protect family and household members who are at risk of severe illness, such as those with compromised immune systems or chronic conditions.
  • Schools may close if COVID-19 is spreading more in your community or if multiple children or staff test positive. Be prepared for that. Your child may also need to stay home if he or she is exposed to a close contact with COVID-19.

Following these steps can help you feel assured that your child is as safe as possible in the school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remember that your child will be dealing with the stress of the ongoing crisis differently from you. Create a supportive and nurturing environment and respond positively to questions and expressions of their feelings. Show support and let your child know that it’s not only okay, but normal, to feel frustrated or anxious at times like this. Validate their feelings and stay connected. Model healthy coping and try to be positive. Avoid negative talks in front of them. Encourage flexibility, do not force a child to pursue strictly one method of learning.

Help your children to stick to their routines and make learning playful by incorporating it into everyday activities like cooking, family reading time or games.

Lastly, as I respect the decision of those parents who don’t prefer to send their kids to school, I think the other people should also respect the decision of parents who have decided to send their kids to school. Each home has a different story. Instead of criticising each other for making choices which we apparently think are not suitable as per our thought process, we should instead focus on practising good infection prevention techniques, which sadly is lacking amongst most population, thereby leading to spread of infection. Instead of taking away the childhood of the kids, we should let them bloom in an environment which is conducive for their growth.

Remember

Schools are safe, stimulating, and enriching places for children and teens to learn. Families, schools, and communities can work together to help ensure students can safely return to and remain physically together in school, where they need to be.

After all, as parents, we all want best for our kids.

At present my son is quite excited about going to school. Excited about meeting his friends and his teachers. Lets see…how the day goes. Its too early to say anything. He might want back to return back to online learning!! As the new changes and protocols might be too much for him. I am prepared for that. We will take it one step at a time

For now….

Stay safe, stay healthy!!

Dr Garima| http://facebook.com/themoppetsclinic 🙂

1 thought on “Back to school: Safety tips for returning to school during COVID-19”

  1. overnightketamine

    Back to school COVID-19 tips: mask up, practice hand hygiene, maintain distance, stay informed on school protocols, and encourage vaccination for a safe return to learning.

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