As fall draws near, schools are announcing their reopening plans. School administrators are navigating the best options for their districts with children’s health and safety in mind. Some school districts will only offer virtual classes. Others will have some in-person learning.
For schools welcoming their students back, it’s critical that they focus on students’ safety. They can do this by putting safety measures in place that consider age-specific challenges. They should also have a quarantine plan if anyone tests positive. Parents can help by modeling physical distancing behavior and by keeping their kids home, if they show any symptoms.
“Many unknowns exist for the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Michael Klompas, MD, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We have to weigh the risk of more infections against the risks that come with keeping kids out of school. There’s no right answer for parents. The best decision for your child depends on your family’s unique situation.”
What Steps Can Schools Take to Limit Spread of Infection?
At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t recommend daily symptom screening or universal testing for students. However, the CDC advises that students and staff protect themselves from COVID-19 by taking these steps:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your face masks, eyes, nose or mouth.
- Wear a multilayer cloth face mask, especially when it’s difficult to maintain 6 feet of distance.
- Stay home if you’re sick, or after having contact with a person infected with COVID-19.
To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, schools should:
- Ensure students, teachers and others can maintain a distance of 6 feet or more among themselves whenever possible.
- Use signs, floor stickers and other methods to indicate 6-foot distances and encourage one-way traffic in hallways.
- Set up physical barriers where 6 feet of distance isn’t possible.
- Teach outside, weather-permitting, or in a well-ventilated space.
- Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, including tables, doorknobs and light switches.
- Limit use of shared objects where possible.
- Create policies that encourage students and staff to follow safety measures.
Age-Specific Challenges with COVID-19 Safety
Teachers of every age level should keep in mind that enforcing safety measures may be more challenging for certain age groups than others. Parents can help by starting this education at home so that kids arrive at school with the right skills and expectations.
For elementary school students:
- It may be difficult to enforce proper mask-wearing. Teachers can use games, songs and fun activities to educate children about its importance.
- Children may lose their masks. Parents can write their children’s initials on masks and provide a plastic container to hold it during lunch.
- Young children may be confused or afraid about masks and distancing. Teachers can use creative activities and stories to help them understand the pandemic and safety measures. Behavioral techniques, such as positive reinforcement, can help encourage children to follow school guidelines.
- Kids from kindergarten to second grade may have more trouble with virtual learning. Experts suggest that parents participate in their kids’ learning when possible and set a schedule to stay on task. Kids at this age are skilled at learning, but they may benefit from everyday feedback and praise.
For middle and high school students:
- Face masks could lead to bullying toward those who do or don’t choose to wear them. Schools should have a plan to address this possible behavior.
- Teenagers may not follow physical distancing guidelines when they’re outside of school. Parents should watch for this conduct and encourage mask-wearing in public spaces.
Parents Can Help Schools Reopen Safely
The opening of schools during COVID-19 coincides with the start of flu season. In the past, students might have gone to school with symptoms like a runny nose and a cough. However, during the pandemic, parents should keep their kids home if they show signs of being unwell. Kids should also stay home if someone in the household has tested positive for COVID-19.
“The coronavirus is very contagious, so parents have to take responsibility when deciding to send their children to school,” says Dr. Klompas. “Potential symptoms of COVID-19 include a runny nose, feeling run-down, mild muscle aches and a slight cough, even without a fever. If your child has any of those symptoms, please keep them at home.”
Because COVID-19 can also be spread by asymptomatic children, it’s important that students follow masking, distancing and hand-hygiene guidelines. Parents should talk with their kids about the changes to expect before they return to school. Families can also model healthy behaviors and educate children on the importance of mask-wearing and handwashing.