A Pediatrician’s Guide to Navigating Back-to-School During COVID-19

The transition back to school after a summer of fun can be hard on the whole family, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. With many schools across the country returning to “business as usual” or close to it, heading back to school this time around may feel more intimidating than ever before.

Many parents are left wondering…how can we keep our kids safe and healthy as they return to the classroom, especially with the Delta variant surging and young children not yet being able to receive COVID-19 vaccines?

That’s why today I am breaking down three easy steps to make the back-to-school transition as easy as possible this year – for YOU and your kids.

Step 1: Continue to Follow the Latest COVID-19 Safety Guidelines

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life with COVID-19 is unpredictable. There are new and updated safety guidelines coming out all the time as cases surge in certain regions and different populations become more vulnerable to getting sick.

That’s why staying up-to-date on the CDC’s latest safety guidelines is the most important way to keep your family healthy this school year. Here is a checklist of topics you should know about as your child heads back to the classroom this year:

  • What Safety Precautions to Expect at Your Child’s School: Schools will take different safety precautions depending upon their own policies, number of COVID-19 cases in the community, and state and/or local government mandates. Make sure you know (and stay up-to-date on) the steps your child’s school is taking to keep students and staff healthy and safe, as well as the learning options that are available.
  • School Guidance for Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Children: All children over the age of 12 are currently able to receive COVID-19 vaccines and should get fully immunized as soon as possible. Some schools may have different safety guidelines in place for vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Make sure you and your child understand your school’s policies for not only what is expected in the classroom but also when participating in extracurricular sports and clubs.
  • School Testing and Reporting Policies for COVID-19: For the safety of your school’s community, it is important to take every precaution if your child starts to experience symptoms of COVID-19. Make sure you understand your school’s testing and reporting policies, as well as quarantine procedures.

Step 2: Be Prepared for a Surge of Germs

As children return to the classroom each year, they not only share stories of summer fun with each other – but also germs! We anticipate a significant increase in children heading to the pediatrician’s office with coughs and colds this school year. That’s why it is so important to take every precaution to keep our kids as healthy as possible – here are some helpful tips:

  • Wash Hands and Sneeze into Elbows: Covering coughs and sneezes and keeping hands clean can help prevent the spread of illness. In fact, research shows that the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs is to wash hands. Teach your child the five steps to hand washing so they know how to do so when both in and outside of the house.
  • Have Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medicines at the Ready: Make sure to have OTC fever reducers and cough or cold medicines on hand BEFORE sickness strikes. You can even add these items to your school supplies list, so you don’t forget them! Make sure to always read and follow the labels on your OTC medicines and speak with your pediatrician if you have any questions.
  • Make Sure Your Child Is Getting the Nutrients Needed to Keep Them Healthy: Just like adults, most kids can get all the nutrition they need from eating a variety of healthy foods. But if your child refuses certain types of foods or doesn’t get enough of them, they may need to take vitamins or other types of dietary supplements. To learn about which vitamins may be right for your child, speak with your pediatrician.
  • Ensure Face Masks Fit Properly: If your child is wearing a mask while in school, make sure it fits snugly over their nose and mouth and under their chin. A loose-fitting mask is annoying, first of all, but it also isn’t doing its job properly.
  • Disinfect Everything: From backpacks to shoes and everything in between, make sure you’re stopping germs at the door. In my house, we have a backpack station in our mud room to prevent spreading germs. We spray down the backpacks and shoes to avoid tracking those outside encounters throughout our home. Don’t forget to follow this tip yourself! Disinfect your own purse and keys, and leave your shoes at the door, too!
  • Keep Up with Wellness Checks: During the peak of the pandemic, many offices were postponing wellness checks to help keep healthy kids from potentially getting sick in the pediatrician’s office. But with telehealth appointments and other creative options now available, it’s time to get back on track!

Step 3: Give You and Your Family Some Grace and Time to Adjust

Transitions are hard on everyone, but they can be especially tough for families and children. As parents, the word “routine” is drilled into us at every turn. And with things continuing to be so up in the air during the pandemic, most routines have gone out the window.

Still, if possible, I recommend trying to provide some moments of daily, predictable routines – even if they are small – to help your child feel a sense of security when other aspects of their life are not so predictable. It’s also important to talk with your child about transitions. Kids really do grasp more than you think sometimes. Just like with adults, it often helps children to better accept changes when they know the “why” behind them.

Check out these tips for tackling the anxiety and stress your child might have about heading back to school – especially this year:

  • Remember Children Absorb Our Energy: It is important to stay calm and positive when talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and heading back to school, regardless of what changes may be taking place with your child’s school routines.
  • Turn Off the News: The news can be filled with scary words and imagery, especially for younger children. Try to wait until your child is out of the house before watching or listening to the news.
  • Not All Anxiety Looks the Same: In children, anxiety can present as headaches, stomach aches, crankiness, and sadness. If your child is displaying any of these symptoms, check on their mental health and take steps to alleviate their worries.
  • Stay Active: Don’t underestimate the power of being outside. Playing outside, fishing, biking, or just going for a walk are good ways to stay healthy and reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Encourage Activities that Decrease Anxiety: Whether your child is an artist, musician, or athlete, get them involved in the activities that build their confidence and keep them happy. Make a point this year to explore different activities and nurture their passions.
  • Regularly Check in on Your Child’s Mental Health: Whether at the dinner table or during the car ride to and from school, find time to check in with your child and ask how they are doing.
  • Know When to Seek Professional Help: If you or your child are having extreme feelings of anxiety or sadness, seek professional help for strategies and support to feel better.

Final Thoughts on Back-To-School

For many parents, the beginning of this school year is filled with uncertainty and fear. We all want so badly for our children to feel a sense of normalcy and security. We will get there, but we need to be safe and smart about how we handle the back-to-school season this year. Wishing you a smooth transition!

Dr. Katie Friedman

Dr. Katie Friedman is a board certified pediatrician and specialist in pediatric emergency medicine. She is also a wife, and mother of two. Along with her sisters (Alison, a veterinarian and Carrie, a fashion stylist), she is a co-founder of Forever Freckled, a website dedicated to helping people with pets, children, and everyday lifestyle.

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