DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I have two children, ages 6 and 12. Our family has been wrestling with what to do in terms of sending our children back to school as our local school district has given us several options that include in-person and online learning. Do you have any advice for how we can make the best choice and any extra safety measures we can take if they return to school in-person?
ANSWER: Going back to school this year has taken on new meaning and a new set of worries for parents. Schools must balance the educational, social and emotional needs of their students along with the health and safety of students and staff in the midst of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
As you shared, many school districts have several options for opening the new school year:
- Distance schooling. All instruction is done remotely in this model, using technology and other tools.
- In-person schooling. This model is similar to the traditional schooling, with enhanced health and safety precautions and procedures.
- Hybrid schooling. This model includes elements of both distance and in-person schooling.
As it is still not clear how easily COVID-19 spreads among children, being prepared for a variety of schooling environments can empower you and your child, reduce anxiety and minimize risk. In each case, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks of COVID-19, help your child feel safe and make informed decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommended adoption of three specific practices to help reduce the spread of infection: social distancing, wearing a mask that covers both your nose and mouth, and proper hand hygiene. Talk to your children about the importance of these practices to reduce their risk of illness.
Take time to review with your children any plans for social distancing that your school district has shared. For instance, if plexiglass shields or partitions are being installed to separate teachers and students, show pictures (especially to your younger child) and explain how their work space may look different this year. Talk about how recess or lunch might be different if your school plans to keep children with their classes.
Given that social distancing is not always feasible, many schools are implementing protocols for when students will be required to wear a mask, such as on the bus, at recess or when transitioning to and from class. Talk with your child about the expectations for masks and allow them to select masks in their favorite color or with a pattern/character they like. Depending upon your child’s age, practice properly putting on and taking off cloth face masks with your child while avoiding touching the cloth portions. You also may have them practice putting masks on their dolls or toys.
It is also a good time to remind your children to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth. And remind them to cover their mouths and noses with their elbows or tissues when they cough or sneeze, and then wash their hands.
Consider these additional tips before school starts:
- Have multiple cloth face masks available for your child.
- Send your child with a clean mask and backup mask each day, and provide a clean, resealable bag for them to store it when they can’t wear it, such as at lunch.
- Plan to label your child’s mask clearly so it’s not confused with another child’s. Remind your child that masks are not for sharing with their friends.
- Discuss with your child why some people may not be able to wear face masks for medical reasons.
You also may want to find out what your school will require should there be positive cases or exposure to someone with COVID-19.
Depending upon your children’s reaction to these in-person issues, you may want to explore at-home learning. While social distancing and masking will not be required in the home setting, taking time to understand how teaching will occur will be important.
Some questions to consider:
- How long will children be online daily? Will your child be able to sit still for an extended period of time and focus on the lessons or do they need continuous engagement?
- What are the technology requirements, such as computer, printer and software?
- Are there opportunities for one-on-one support if your children need additional assistance?
Take time to discuss as a family the scenario that will best fit your children, understanding that you may still end up with a hybrid. If you choose to send your children back to school, don’t forget to have a backup care plan as no child should be attending in-person school if they are sick or have symptoms of any illness. — Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding along with guidelines and recommendations may have changed since the original publication date.