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Kids already know ‘stop, drop and roll’ for fire emergencies; it’s time to teach ‘stop, wash and mask on’ for COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Students at Jayne Royal's 5th grade class, wear masks and have a table with disinfectants and hand sanitizer near the door at St. Malachy School in the west side of Chicago, Wednesday Oct., 7, 2020.
Students at Jayne Royal's 5th grade class, wear masks and have a table with disinfectants and hand sanitizer near the door at St. Malachy School in the west side of Chicago, Wednesday Oct., 7, 2020. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

We all remember fire drills in school and “stop, drop and roll!” Sure, they were fun — firefighters often came in and showed off their cool gear — but they also prepared us for the exceedingly rare, but very real, possibility of an emergency.

There is no doubt that now we are truly in an emergency that none of us can escape from — virus particles literally linger in the air all around us. Students will be returning to schools in greater numbers over the coming weeks with the governor’s push for hybrid learning by March 1. Unlike with fire drills, we have not prepared our students for this public health emergency. To remedy that, we should incorporate a COVID-19 and pandemic emergency curriculum in schools.

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It’s time for stop, wash and mask on.

Children are an important part of the formula for preventing the spread of COVID-19. School-based interventions can promote positive, healthy behavioral changes, as long as these efforts include education and integration into the curriculum, changing the school culture, and engaging families and communities. The added benefit of teaching pandemic response in schools is that students copy their peers. With a well designed COVID-19 and pandemic curriculum, we can potentially help reinforce behaviors and attitudes among students to protect themselves and those around them, all the while creating a generation of public health influencers.

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Empowering students during these unprecedented times begins with education. Like adults, students may be grappling with isolation, loss of routine, fear for the health of their family and friends, and the anxiety of uncertainty. However, unlike adults, children are often in a position where decisions about their safety are being made for them, and yet they may still be struggling to understand why these decisions are being made. Data show that education reduces anxiety over the unknown. COVID-19 and public health education can empower students with the knowledge and tools to understand ongoing changes and regain a sense of control.

The students of today must be prepared for current and future public health threats. Even after COVID-19 is gone, the threat of future pandemics may be here to stay. If seeing the world go through SARS, Ebola, H1N1, and Mers-CoV was not enough, our current COVID-19 pandemic underscores that we need to be prepared and educated on pandemic response. We can only effectively fight pandemics if we all work together — yet the data show that many adults have gaps in their knowledge about COVID-19 and differing attitudes and behavioral responses toward the virus. By educating today’s children, we can help ensure a society that will be armed with the foundation to face the pandemics of tomorrow. A COVID-19 and general pandemic curriculum that covers public health basics — How do masks and hand-washing work? How are vaccines developed? — can prepare future generations to be active, informed participants in a public health response.

Collaborations between schools and public health organizations can help make this curriculum a reality. For example, experts from Johns Hopkins have created a COVID-19 curriculum specifically for K-12 students. Currently, volunteers from health professions are using virtual learning platforms to teach this curriculum remotely at schools around Baltimore and across the United States.

Kids are great at learning and caring. While we all wish for things to return to normal, masks and other safety measures may become part of the routine for all of us moving forward. For the health and safety of our children during this current pandemic and beyond, we need to prepare them to stop, wash and mask on.

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Hursuong Vongsachang (hvongsa2@jhmi.edu) is a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos (pgaliat1@jhmi.edu) is a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-chair of Health Equity in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Health Equity. And Dr. Megan Collins (mcolli36@jhmi.edu) is a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Berman Institute of Bioethics, and co-director of the Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions.

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