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Balancing risks and rewards of returning to school
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Balancing risks and rewards of returning to school

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently advocated that holding in-person classes in the coming year should be our goal, not only for education reasons but because schools support students in many other ways, including meals and mental health resources.

However, the AAP also noted that we must balance that with the health risks at play for students, teachers, staff and the community. Most school districts are grappling with how to create a place that is safe, equitable and flexible as the situation changes. There are no easy answers, so how can parents help prepare their children?

First, have open and age appropriate conversations with your kids now. Begin to set the expectation that the school year will look different and help them understand why. Even if you haven’t had these conversations directly with your child yet, they likely have a sense of what is happening.

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Even young children can understand the concept of germs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers good advice on how to approach this, including remaining calm and reassuring, avoiding language that might blame others and providing accurate information, especially if your child is on social media and may be seeing rumors.

If school is in person, it’s likely that masks will be required. Model this behavior for your children and get them used to wearing them now. It will take time for younger children to get comfortable wearing masks and avoid constantly touching them. Cloth masks should be washed between use.

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Hand hygiene is also important. Most of us, adults included, don’t wash our hands often or long enough. Building this habit now will make it easier to maintain into the new school year. If age appropriate, consider sending a small hand sanitizer with them to school.

It’s important to remember that the risk of infection goes beyond just the students. Many teachers, school staff and other families may be at high risk. Each child and family should continue precautions to limit bringing the virus into a school setting or back home. This includes wearing masks in public, limiting social outings, and staying home when sick. Talk to your school about how they’ll be managing physical distancing within the classroom and how often cleaning will happen, especially in shared spaces.

School sports and other extracurriculars have major benefits for a child’s social and physical development. These can still happen, but safety measures should be in place. It’s always better to be outside if possible.

Low contact activities where you can spread out, like softball, golf or tennis, are your safest bet. Equipment should be cleaned between use or not shared. We often see adolescents with overuse injuries from sports, so this could be a good opportunity to try something new.

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As the COVID-19 situation evolves, it’s very possible that in-person school could quickly turn to at-home school just as it did last year. Start to think about how you’ll handle a sudden change in attendance policy or extended breaks. The more quickly you can establish a routine, the better for your child.

While online learning allows for more social distancing, it also comes with its own risks and hurdles. Many families have limited access to computers and internet. School is a vital source of meals for kids with food insecurities. There may be safety and security issues at home. The summer gave schools and communities more time to address these issues, but they won’t all be resolved. For families facing these issues, I recommend reaching out to your school now. They may be able to help connect you with resources.

Children also have different learning styles. Many need in-person instruction, classroom structure and real time interaction with their teachers and friends. It can be difficult for parents to fill that role. Most do not have the skill set for teaching a variety of topics. And many parents are also adapting to changes in their own jobs. Consider partnering with another family with similar age children to maximize learning opportunities and allow for socialization. It’s important that the families commit to safe practices but having a small, dependable circle can be helpful for parents and kids.

I also recommend supplementing online classes with experiential learning. Take a hike, break out the art supplies or race around the block for an impromptu gym class. Get creative with family time to give everyone a break from screens. It could be a boost to parents’ mental health, too.

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Regardless of whether school is in person or online, make sure your child is still having a back-to-school visit with their doctor. Staying up to date on vaccinations and overall well-being, including mental health, is more important than ever.

Dr. Derek Clevidence is a family medicine physician at the UnityPoint Health-Meriter Monona Clinic, where he cares for patients of all ages. He also serves as regional vice president and medical director of UnityPoint Health-Meriter clinics. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, working out, reading, fishing and astronomy.

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