Across the country and here in Baltimore, families are gearing up to go back to school. And while I can’t wait for kids to get back into the classroom, I know that some students, caregivers, and teachers have anxiety about returning to in-person learning.
As pediatrician and a mother of three children in kindergarten, 2nd and 5th grade, I am thinking about how best to prepare my patients and my family to thrive after months of learning at home and a summer break. It is important to recognize that children require holistic support – for their mental, physical and emotional health – as they transition back to school this year. While we may feel helpless at times, there are opportunities that all of us have to safeguard the total health of our families and communities as we return to schools.
First, increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates in schools and within families will help students and educators safely return to in-person learning, extracurricular activities and sports. Rigorous studies have shown that the vaccine is safe and effective, with no evidence of significant side effects. Reports of serious side effects are rare and the known and potential benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks. We are hearing that the vaccine may be approved for children under 12 in the near future. As a pediatrician and mom, I look forward to providing that protection to all children, including my own. Until then, it is incredibly important that everyone who can be vaccinated do so to protect children under 12.
Second, wearing a mask is still the easiest way to protect against getting sick. Make sure your child’s mask fits properly since it will need to be worn for the full school day: it shouldn’t be so loose it slips off easily or so tight it’s uncomfortable. While we await approval of vaccines for children 11 and younger, Marylanders need to mask up indoors, wash our hands and keep our distance for a little bit longer – and of course, get vaccinated.
Third, help your child ease back into in-person socializing. For kids who are nervous about their rusty social skills, schedule some in-person play dates leading up to school so that they feel more comfortable and prepared. Try heading to an outdoor park or a splash pad – you can even visit your school’s playground if it’s open. These are great ways to get social exposures and some fresh air at the same time.
Fourth, if you missed appointments during the pandemic, schedule your child’s annual physical exam and make sure you’re up-to-date on other vaccines and get your flu shot. We are already seeing a huge increase in upper respiratory infections in children. Getting flu shots for everyone in the household can reduce your risk of getting sick and spreading germs to others. Unfortunately, we know that viruses often can occur as co-infections – meaning more than one virus at a time. So, this makes flu shots even more important than ever.
Fifth, keep the lines of communication open. The isolation and stress we faced over the past year have exacerbated mental health issues for those with preexisting conditions. We’ve also seen an increase in new mental health issues among children over the past year such as anxiety and depression. Talk to your child about returning to school; let them know that it is OK to be nervous. If your child is worried about keeping up academically, ask your child’s school about available resources.
To assist families, teachers, and school administrators in proactively addressing the health needs of the school community, more than 30 nationally recognized and trusted school health organizations came together to develop a playbook to support health in schools — Kaiser Permanente’s “Planning for the Next Normal at School: Keeping students, staff, and families safe and healthy.” This guide aims to equip schools and district leaders with specific, evidence-informed guidance and operating procedures for keeping school communities mentally and physically safe as we shape a new approach to learning.
Over the course of the pandemic, we were reminded that in-person school is more than just education. It is a haven where social skills are cultivated, friendships are nurtured, and community connections are strengthened. As proactive and engaged parents and caregivers, we can safeguard this priceless environment. We all must be vigilant to ensure the safety of our children and those around them. Together, we can bring our kids and teachers back to school confidently.
Rochelle Kushner, M.D., is a pediatrician with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group and sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Towson Medical Center.