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Back to School in a Pandemic: A Doctor’s Tips for a Healthy Year

August 26, 2020

Help your kids stay safe, healthy and ready to learn this year with advice from pediatrician Tyree Winters, DO

This return to the school year will be an anxious one for many parents. Some are facing concerns about the demands of work, childcare and remote schooling as well as socialization opportunities and services usually found in school. Others face the uncertainty of a return to in-person classroom instruction, and how well safety measures at schools will work.

Dr. Tyree Winters, a pediatrician with Atlantic Medical Group and the medical director of the Pediatric HealthStart Clinic, tackled key health questions surrounding the return to school in a Facebook live Community Conversation on August 4.

Can children really follow the guidelines meant to slow the spread of COVID-19?

“We do have to understand that children are children. Just the same way as adults have a hard time being able to do these things, children can have a hard time doing these things,” Dr. Winters said.

He suggests having a conversation with your child to explain the reasons why safety measures like hand washing, social distancing and wearing a mask are important. Make the focus of the conversation empowering to help provide children with a sense of control rather than fear. Tell them “we have the power to be able to help prevent illness within ourselves,” he said.

In a recent conversation with a college-bound patient and her mother, Dr. Winters advised the student to make sure she’s taking the responsible steps – not only to protect herself, but to protect others.

“You’re not expected to be 100% perfect. No one is. But it’s so important for you to understand that the actions that you take can affect so many others around you.” By just having that meaningful conversation, he said “I think that she really did take it to heart.”

Most of our teenagers want to feel a sense of trust. Some may “yes you to death,” when you talk about why these safety measures are important. But, for the most part, teenagers are way more insightful than what we give them credit for, he said.

Should my child still get a school physical?

“The first and foremost thing that we need to make sure is that our patients have received a school or annual physical,” Dr. Winters said.

In normal times and now, an annual physical is much more than a formality for the return to school or athletics. It’s an important checkpoint for a child’s health.

A few of the key thing doctors do at a pediatric annual physical include:

  • making sure the child is up to date on immunizations
  • providing guidance about concerns, like anxiety about returning to a social setting
  • testing hearing and vision; for example, hearing impairment can affect language development for speech and reading comprehension

Doctors also look at other factors to ensure the child has the optimal health for learning, like weight and height, including checking for elevated blood pressure and risk for conditions associated with obesity.

Dr. Winters said he’s heard some patients express anxiety or concern about coming back in for an appointment. “One of the things that I pride myself on, that I pride our staff on, is being able to make sure that we provide a comfort level to our patients,” he said. The team members meet those concerns with understanding and explain what’s being done to make sure patients are entering a safe and effective environment for care.

“We’re seeing more of our patients say ‘You know what? I'm willing to come back now.’”

What are the risks if children get COVID-19?

Although a concerning multisystem inflammatory process can occur in children who were previously infected, we know that the rate of serious illness for young children is not as severe as it is for older children and adults. Even if a child’s illness is mild, he cautions, “there is still a risk the virus will be passed along to others.”

“That’s a big concern when we start to think about how a return to school could affect the home environment and the community as a whole,” he said.

At the Pediatric HealthStart Clinic, many of the patients Dr. Winters sees are in a lower socioeconomic status. Many live in multigenerational family homes where a grandparent or older family member, who could be at higher risk for COVID-19, helps provide childcare while parents work.

How can we stay safe?

Whether returning to school or staying home, follow the basic protocols that we know have been effective:

  • Wash hands or use hand sanitizer thoroughly.
  • Socially distance – six feet is optimal but even three feet apart can be beneficial.
  • Wear a mask:
    • Choose a double- or triple-layer face mask or covering.
    • Wear it appropriately over your nose and mouth.
    • Avoid touching your mask and use the sides to take the mask on and off.
  • Learn more about these tips. >

What about my child’s social and emotional needs?

Your most important resource is your pediatrician if your child is experiencing anxiety, depression or shows other warning signs of sadness, anxiety or a mood disorder, Dr. Winters said.

Parents and caregivers should also make sure they are secure and should seek the help when needed. Read more about Anxiety, Uncertainty and Coexisting with COVID-19 >

The loss of social interaction has been difficult for many children, particularly teens. In addition to making the most of digital resources for video calls and hangouts, Dr. Winters suggests children connect with one or two trusted individuals in a socially distanced way, ideally outdoors.

“We’re trying to find the lowest possible risk, but to be able to still have that socialization, which is so important.”

Do you have any advice for teachers?

As someone who treated patients throughout the pandemic, Dr. Winters said he understands the difficult situation teachers are in and is with them in solidarity. He highlighted the importance of self-care as teachers face increased risk and greater responsibilities, likely along with missed lunches and prep time since students in pod structures will remain in the classroom.

He advised trying to figure out how you can limit exposure within your specific scenario. Social distancing and protective strategies like barriers, strategic desk orientation and hand washing stations, can help minimize risk.

What other factors concerning the return to school should be considered?

Dr. Winters said he understands why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians have encouraged in-school training but have also expressed the importance of providing safe spaces for our children. “Both are so needed,” he said, but without a return to school, many students miss opportunities to experience and talk to other students at their same age and developmental level.

In addition to social opportunities and academic benefits, Dr. Winters explained some other important benefits schools provide, such as nutrition, supervision during the day, and other important wraparound services for families.

Dr. Winters gave an example of a child with severe autism who normally receives services through school. Though a parent may have access to support services through Zoom, understanding and using teaching methods normally done by a person with a master’s degree in speech pathology is complicated.

School also provides a sense of security. Some children may not have a quiet place at home to listen to remote learning and concentrate on work.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Dr. Winters said. “That’s why it’s important for school districts to work with families, pediatricians and the public health sector to determine the best strategy for each specific district.”

Tyree Winters, DO, is a pediatrician with Atlantic Medical Group Pediatrics at Florham Park and medical director of the Pediatric HealthStart Clinic.