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6 Ways to Prepare Your Kids for School

August 12, 2020

Classroom, computer or community – help your kids reduce their risk for COVID-19 exposure and stay healthy with important insights from Dr. Tyree Winters
Mom hugs daughter wearing mask before school.

How do we create a sense of normalcy in an ongoing global pandemic? For many parents, that has been a struggle over the last few months.

We’ve always had to adapt to unexpected challenges, said Tyree Winters, DO, a pediatrician with Atlantic Medical Group Pediatrics at Florham Park. Dr. Winters is also medical director of the HealthStart Clinic.

The question now is how we keep living amid this pandemic, he said. Going back to school this fall will be different – whether it’s virtual, in-person, or a hybrid.

Dr. Winters shared these tips for preserving normalcy and staying healthy as the school year begins:

Mask Up

Dr. Winters said he would choose a reusable fabric mask that has a three-layer thickness. As research emerges that droplets can spread more easily through the air, the extra layers help reduce the distance they can travel, he said. Fabric masks can also be washed daily and are lower cost over time than paper masks, which must be discarded after each use.

Make sure the mask is sized properly so it fits comfortably over your child’s nose and mouth, he explained. The mask won’t be effective if it slips down through the course of the day. A lot of the reusable masks have adjustable loops, which make this easier.

Children should also be taught the proper way to take their masks on and off – by touching the sides of the masks, not the front.

Wash Well

Teach your children to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer thoroughly. Dr. Winters recommended a 20-second technique for hand rubbing, and a similar one for hand washing, from the World Health Organization.

Washing your hands is the best method when soap and water are available, he said, adding that hand sanitizer is great after smaller touches, or when you’re on the go. When using hand sanitizer, be sure to “completely cover the surface of your hands and have them completely dry” before moving on, Dr. Winters said. He also recommends alternating between the two methods to keep your skin from drying out.

If attending school in person, Dr. Winters said students should clean their hands when entering, exiting, transitioning between classrooms, after using the restroom and other times they encounter high-touch surfaces.

Workspaces for younger children who aren’t changing classes can be disinfected, but students still need to be conscious of things brought back to the desk. Many materials like crayons, scissors and glue will need to be individual, rather than shared.

Get Moving

Whether in a classroom or learning virtually from home, physical activity is very important for children. Dr. Winters encouraged the whole family to be active and to do activities together.

These activities are easier to find in the summer, including hiking, biking and outdoor play, but some creativity may be required as winter approaches, he said.

“Find fun activities inside the house that you can do – whether that’s doing dance routines or creating fun, interactive games to play,” he said. The key is to avoid becoming sedentary while spending more time at home.

Start a Social Circle

“We know that socialization is so important for children, and that’s one of the reasons why the (American Academy of Pediatrics) is still pushing for children to go back to in-person education. But I think you can do that with a smaller group of even two or three children,” Dr. Winters said.

If your child is learning virtually, Dr. Winters recommends choosing a few individuals with whom you have a closer bond and establishing play dates within a circle of trust. This will give your children opportunities to develop those social and emotional skills. When those playdates occur, go outdoors or choose an area with good ventilation.

Don't Delay Wellness Care

“Immunizations are so important. Yes, COVID-19 is real, but so are measles, influenza, and HPV,” Dr. Winters said as he talked about the necessary children’s health care that shouldn’t be neglected because of the pandemic.

Prepare your child for school from a health perspective like you would have before the pandemic. Make sure that you still get your child’s school physical done and follow up on any conditions they have, like asthma.

Find a Pediatrician >

Communicate and Watch for Warning Signs

Dr. Winters believes it’s important to discuss topics like COVID-19 and social injustice with children, but in an age-appropriate way. Have real conversations with your children about their feelings and give them opportunities to express themselves to you, Dr. Winters advised. 

Instead of ignoring or downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledge that “when we’re worried, the child may be worried as well.” Have that conversation so the child feels comfortable talking to you and understands that it’s normal to be worried, he said. Advice on Talking to Children about Coronavirus for Each Age and Stage of Development >

Recognize warning signs of sadness, anxiety or a mood disorder. Seek professional guidance if your child starts becoming withdrawn, sleeping more, acting or lashing out, becoming clingy, exhibiting coping mechanisms like eating more or eating less, or is having outbursts of emotion or energy in great highs or lows. Parents should recognize that there could also be a flare up for a child with an existing mood disorder.

“If you catch it earlier on, you can start to make more of a conscientious effort to address it,” according to Dr. Winters.

Parents should also take the time to decompress or take a break in a separate space from their children if they feel their own anxiety levels rising or are feeling depressed. Read more about Anxiety, Uncertainty and Coexisting with COVID-19 >

In addition to these tips, Dr. Winters believes a cultural change needs to take place about when it’s ok to proceed with activities.

While at one time people might have continued with work or school if symptoms weren’t severe, now they need to take themselves out of an environment where they could infect others. “If you’re feeling mild symptoms, you need to stay at home,” he explained.

“Listen to your body. If you realize that you feel off or sluggish, it’s ok to take the day off,” Dr. Winters said.

Protect others and care for yourself by taking the time to know if you’re having serious symptoms or something that can be explained elsewhere.

Know your body. If you realize that you feel off or sluggish, it’s ok to take the day off.”

Dr. Tyree Winters