By Jake Mendel, The Berkshire Eagle
Parents, teachers and students are gearing up for the unknowns of a school year in the midst of a pandemic. With these challenges come questions, but the answers can’t be found in the back of a textbook.
With no blueprint to follow, school safety protocols and concerns surrounding virtual learning are on everyone’s mind. We gathered a panel of health experts — including Pediatrician Dr. Brian Dempsey, who has nearly 28 years of practice in Berkshire County; Cristina Lenefest, Richmond Consolidated school nurse and Jennifer Daily, a licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, who provides therapy for children, teens and families — to provide some insight and answers about the 2020-21 school year.
Q. How often should I be cleaning/sanitizing my child’s mask?
Dempsey: I’d buy a number of cloth masks and wash every day. Put it on and wear it all day long, except for lunch.
Q. What kind of mask works best for children?
Dempsey: Whichever one you can get them to tolerate. Studies show cloth isn’t as efficient as a PPE [personal protective equipment] mask, but it is not a bad alternative. Whatever a kid likes, if they like Batman, get a Batman mask. If they like unicorns, give them the unicorn mask.
Q. When do I keep my kids home from daycare/preschool/school if they are sick?
Dempsey: If they have a fever or bad cough you should keep them home. The same is true for a stuffy nose — they shouldn’t go. Whatever they have will be contiguous and you won’t know if it’s COVID-19 for another 5 to 7 days.
Q. If my child has a common cold and is sent home, when can he/she return?
Dempsey: When the cough and stuffy nose is gone, fever is usually gone for 48 hours. A virus usually lasts a week, but could last around 10 days. COVID-19 keeps people out of action for 14 days. Most viruses I’ve seen in the office recently haven’t been [the novel] coronavirus; the last 25 tested were not COVID-19.
Q. What other precautions, other than mask wearing/social distancing can I take with my children?
Lenefest: Hand hygiene and washing with soap and water for 20 seconds. Coming to school only when healthy, using only your own supplies and raising your hand to move around the room. Coughing or sneezing into the elbow and keeping hands to self. Only eating your own food and getting into the habit of greeting people from a distance.
Q. Aside from COVID-19, what other illnesses should I be looking out for/concerned about now that my children are re-entering social settings?
Lenefest: We’re coming up into flu season and the common cold. I support the mandated flu vaccine and schools should look into having a flu clinic at their schools to help the traffic into the primary clinics. We’re having one that has approximately 60 kids and 30 adults that signed up.
Dempsey: Influenza would be first, second and third [in terms of other illnesses to look out for]. The same precautions you use for COVID-19 are effective. I’m hopeful there will be fewer cases because everyone is wearing masks and social distancing.
Q. When should my child get a flu shot? What’s the best time of year?
Lenefest: The earlier the better. The [state-mandated] deadline for [students 6 months or older enrolled in Massachusetts child care, preschool, K-12 schools or colleges and universities] is Dec. 31 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting it much earlier than that.
Dempsey: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends September and October. We’ve had flu outbreaks that have occurred as early as the second or third week of October. Earlier is better; I’m giving the kids the shot right now.
Q. With all these questions in mind, what is your key piece of advice for both students and parents trying to get through this pandemic?
Lenefest: Make sure your school nurse has up-to-date wellness and immunization records on hand. This will help aid in the assessment of every cough, sniffle and sneeze that we see. Also, please have honest conversations with your child about going to the school nurse. A student telling their teacher they have a headache and a cough poses more risks than pre-COVID-19 days. We know that sometimes kids need breaks and the younger kids may say [they’re not feeling well] to avoid math class — I even did this as a kid back in the day! The teachers and myself will be teaching this at the school once the kids return, but it always helps when there’s parental reinforcement. If a student presents COVID-19 symptoms, they will be sent home and a test will be necessary.
Q. How can I help my child better adjust to virtual learning in the new school year?
Daily: The No. 1 strategy for engaged learning is creative assignments. Parents can always advocate for kids to participate in different ways compared to Zoom meetings in order to be better engaged. Younger kids are having a hard time because there isn’t always that hands-on stuff.
Q. How do I talk to my kids about COVID-19 now that it is stretching on longer than we may have thought?
Daily: I think kids don’t always have great information. Younger kids seem to have better info and sometimes we think middle and high school kids know more, but some are going on old info. It is important to tell kids we have more science to help us understand — like wearing masks reduces transmission 65 percent, social distancing drops it to 13 percent risk of transmission. There are no good options, but we’re trying to get everyone back the safest way, it’s going to be a weird year. Make sure to give the kids all the info so they know.
Q. What should I be looking out for in my children as a warning sign that they might not be handling things well?
Daily: Kids do well when they can and it is really important for parents to remember if kids aren’t doing well, not necessarily grades, but engaging and being proud of their work, they need more support. It is important for parents to be communicating with teachers about what is or isn’t working. We can’t let things linger if they are not working.
Q. How do I talk to my teenager who may be “over” COVID-19 and the restrictions.
Daily: That’s the thing, [the pandemic] is hard and this sucks and we’re all over it. If we don’t follow guidelines, we’ll have to do it even longer. Only reason we can open up is because the Berkshire folk have done a great job in shutting things down and following the social distancing. Remind them that if we don’t do this now, we’ll do it all year. We’ve done a great job and we do a great job when we do it together. What is cool about the Berkshires is politics don’t matter, if someone gets stuck in a snowbank, a neighbor will always help you out — it’s the Berkshire way.
Q. What are the long-term effects of this on children? What will be talking about/looking at five years from now?
Daily: These are questions people asked after Sept. 11. It is this national trauma and how we come out is important and the national narrative will be important, but no parents will have control of that. Trauma [from problems at home] and drug relapses are up. But, there are a lot of opportunities for [changes]. The old rule is that if kids aren’t easy readers by 8, maybe they won’t become readers. These standards could change because now kids have more time to figure things out.
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