A is for apple, B is for Boy and C is for Cat – except that is not quite the education people are seeking during this pandemic. Parents are now wanting answers for the best practices on how to help their children return to school safely. To answer these questions, three healthcare professionals broke it down through the ABC’s.
A is no longer for apple, instead it is for Advice on keeping COVID-19 out of the classrooms.
B is for Best practices when it comes to physical wellbeing.
C is for Coping skills, because this pandemic has been mentally detrimental to so many.
With many parents teetering on the edge of whether they should send their children back to school, and some being forced to send them back for work reasons, it seems the best way to get through this year is not to force a total shutdown. Instead, it is more sensible to try to make the environment as safe as possible. That is why State Senator Judith Zaffrini joined Dr. Tammy Camp, president of Texas Pediatric Society, along with Dr. Maria Del Colon-Gonzalez and Megan Mooney, a licensed psychologist and president of the Texas Psychological Association.
Camp went over school safety and noted that every community is effected differently by the coronavirus with the number of active cases and hotspots. Her first piece of advice during the teleconference was that local public health authorities should be in touch with pediatricians and physicians to work through practices best tailored for the community.
Although people have heard this countless times, the best practices to take in school, according to Camp, are physical distancing, wearing face masks and PPE, avoiding face touching and having some shields in the classroom.
Hand washing, a key component in prevention, should be done for at least 20 seconds. If washing hands is not a viable option, the next best practice is using hand sanitizer, ensuring it is being rubbed on all part of the hands and that it dries, added Camp.
It is best to wash hands before eating, after the bathroom, after touching shared equipment and upon arriving at home. The practice of hand washing and not touching one’s face might be difficult to implement; even disciplined adults sometimes forget. Dr. Camp has an experiment to help kids understand these two important steps.
One way she suggested is the black light experiment. A powder is placed on the hands and kids are allowed to touch their face. After 30 minutes, show the kids how much powder has spread under a black light.
Besides these safety components, there is a health aspect, not a symptom of COVID-19, that Camp wanted to hit upon. She said over 75% of American children do not meet their regular daily activity needs and over half of them are considered sedentary. Ideally, classrooms would reintegrate physical education courses. PE is still a possibility, but it has to be finessed implemented differently. To mitigate risk, Camp said it is best if students exercise in highly ventilated areas and decrease shared equipment activities.
Examples of low-risk activities include walking, golfing, tennis, running and cycling. Some medium-risk sports are low-contact sports like baseball and volleyball. The high-risk activities include football and basketball. But Camp warns that we are going to be on the verge of an obesity epidemic, a big reason for children to focus on sports that can be played safely.
Colon-Gonzalez listed some other physical practices children and adults can benefit from to boost their immune system.
She advised that people aim to sleep seven to nine hours a night, and maybe more for kids of younger age. Eat a nutritionally balanced meal including whole plants, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Then there are the factors Colon-Gonzalez talked about that promote mental wellbeing. She said that people should try to self-regulate and accept their emotions, listen to their body and manage stress. Self-isolation is highly cautioned against; Colon-Gonzalez said people should increase connectivity to loved ones and try to develop a family routine that includes listening without judgement.
During the pandemic, there has been an increase in abuse and a decrease in food safety. Colon-Gonzalez urged that teachers keep this in the back of their minds and try to watch out for potential signs of neglect.
Outside of school and outside of the home, Colon-Gonzalez suggests that when people are hanging out or having a barbeque, it is best to have some sort of agreement on hygiene and safety measures between the groups. To back-track, starting with the self, she said that people should be following proper hygiene rules. They should also think about boosting their personal immunity. And before suggesting a get together, people should ask if they can postpone the activity, or if they can replace the in-person meet with a virtual one.
Meeting in-person might be easier to control than sending students to their school campus. If there is an outbreak, Colon-Gonzalez said the first thing to do is assess the risk.
Ask, was there close contact with the COVID-19 carrier? Where they less than six feet apart and was contact for more than 50 minutes? Were masks being used during this contact? Was the person symptomatic or not?
These questions will help determine the risk of infection. And the best first step to take, according to Colon-Gonzalez, is to isolate the person infected with COVID-19. If it happens in class, the child should be removed and the health department should be contacted. The school may have to close for two to five days, but during that time, those who are not feeling ill should continue their online learning.
Besides fulfilling physical health, Mooney wants parents to learn how to ease their children’s minds and help with their mental health.
Mooney told the panel that kids worry most when kept in the dark and they want information. The best way to start the conversation is by welcoming the child’s questions. Keep in mind, not all children are in the same developmental age; it is best to talk to children in the developmentally appropriate manner.
The main idea is to listen to the children and show them reassurance. It is okay not to have all the answers, said Mooney, but tell the child that you will find out the answer together.
Focusing on a routine and schedule are highly recommended, it gives a good idea about time frames and creates structure – something that helps everyone feel better, said Mooney.
Children and teens are going through crucial social developmental stages, learning how to share and resolve conflict with their peers. Mooney suggests that children keep up with calls and chats with their friends. They can partake in online games like Pictionary or bingo or watch movies at the same time. If they hang out in person, she suggests to keep a distance and try to do an outdoor activity.
Just as it is important to keep children socializing and in a routine, it is important to observe any changes in them. Some signs of mental struggle are if a child is not quite themselves, then finding out how long these changes are lasting. If a parent is worried about their child’s mental health, Mooney suggests that parents reach out to a family doctor or school therapist.
COVID-19 has flipped lives upside down and created major life changes without a warning. The side effects cannot be summated in a few words or in a one solution fits all. But if there is some umbrella advice Mooney can give to parents, it is to find a delicate balance, focus on facts, do what they can to stay safe and focus on optimism in the future.