What should school look like in the fall?
A big question parents have right now is how students can go back to school safely during COVID-19. The latest American Academy of Pediatrics advice says children learn best when they are in school. However, returning to school needs careful steps in place to keep students and staff safe.
The AAP guidance is based on what pediatricians and infectious disease specialists know about COVID-19 and kids. Evidence so far suggests that children and adolescents are less likely to have symptoms or severe disease from infection. They also appear less likely to become infected or spread the virus.
Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, children learn social and emotional skills, get exercise and access to mental health support and other things that cannot be provided with online learning. For many families, school is where kids get healthy meals, access to the internet and other vital services.
To stay safe, there are a number of steps schools should take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They include physical distancing, cloth face coverings and hand hygiene.
The goal should be to stay at least 6 feet apart to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. However, spacing desks at least 3 feet apart and avoiding close contact may have similar benefits for students -- especially if students wear cloth face coverings and do not have symptoms of illness.
Teachers and staff, who are likely more at risk of getting COVID-19 from other adults than from children at school, should stay the full 6 feet apart from each other and students when possible. Teachers and staff should also wear cloth face coverings and limit in-person meetings with other adults.
When possible, outdoor spaces can be used for instruction and meals. Students should also have extra space to spread out during activities like singing and exercising.
Frequent hand washing with soap and water is important for everyone. In addition, all adults should wear cloth face coverings. Elementary students can benefit from wearing masks if they do not touch their mouths or noses a lot. Secondary school students should wear cloth face masks if they can't stay a safe distance apart.
Schools will also need to consider how to help limit student interaction outside the classroom. Teachers may move between classrooms, rather than having students fill the hallways during passing periods. Students might eat lunches at their desks or in small groups outdoors instead of in crowded lunchrooms. Keep classroom doors open to help reduce high touch surfaces such as doorknobs.
Taking students' temperature at school also may not always be feasible. Schools should establish ways to identify students with fever or other symptoms of illness. They can also frequently remind students, teachers and staff to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or have any signs of illness.
Schools should follow CDC guidelines on proper disinfecting and sanitizing classrooms and common areas. Additional precautions will be needed to address safe use of buses, hallways and playgrounds.
As students return to school, it will be important to recognize that they may not have gained as much from distance learning. Some students may not have had access to computers and internet. Schools should be prepared to adjust curricula and not expect to make up all lost progress. It is important to balance core subjects with physical education and other learning experiences.
The impact of schools being closed may have been greater for students with disabilities. They may have a difficult time transitioning back to school after missing out on instruction time as well as school-based services such as occupational, physical and speech-language therapy and mental health support counseling. Schools should review the needs of each child with an Individual Education Program before they return to school, and provide services even if they are done virtually.
How can parents help?
It is important as students return to school that they are up to date on their immunizations. It will be critical that students and staff get their flu shot this year to reduce the spread of influenza this fall and winter. Your pediatrician is available now to make sure you child is ready for school.
Returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic may not feel like normal -- at least for a while. But having school plans in place can help keep students, staff and families safe.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Nathaniel Beers is a member of AAP's councils on School Health and Children with Disabilities. He is also president of the HSC Health Care System in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org.