The Covid-19 delta variant has dashed hopes of a normal school year. But around the country, many kids and parents are taking the plunge (or getting ready to) — and sending their kids back to school, posting first-day photos and all.
Here in New York City, my son will start kindergarten the week after Labor Day. It’s a big milestone in the best of times, which these are not.
If you’re anything like me, you might be feeling nervous about keeping your kids safe during the new school year amid the latest coronavirus surge, especially if you have a child who is under 12 and not yet eligible for a vaccine. I recently spoke with three of the country’s top doctors to get the best practical tips for having a strong start to the school year.
I chatted with Dr. Julie Morita, a pediatrician and member of President Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board; Dr. Bill Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist who works with children; and Dr. Lucy McBride, an internal medicine doctor and a regular contributor to The Atlantic.
Here is our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q: Is there anything we parents can do to support our teachers who are going through this with us?
Dr. Morita: “Our teachers are heroes, especially now, and they need our support more than ever. First and foremost, parents should ensure their kids wear masks to school. Masks protect both kids and their teachers. Vaccinating your children when they turn 12 helps protect teachers, too. We can also encourage school districts to get their teachers and staff vaccinated — it is critical that teachers have easy access to vaccines and that they get paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects.”
Dr. Stixrud: “Tell your teachers you understand this time is difficult for them too, and don’t burden them with unnecessary personal details. If a challenge does arise and you find yourself furious with a teacher, don’t respond immediately. Give yourself time to cool down. Don’t give negative feedback in the heat of the moment or else you end up in reactive/defensive mode. Start with empathy.”
Q: Health experts say our kids will be safer if they wear masks indoors at school. Does it matter what kind of masks we send our kids to school in?
Dr Morita: “The most important thing when it comes to kids and masks is that they’re worn properly—a multi-layer, breathable fabric that fully covers the mouth and nose at all times and has no gaps on the sides. The CDC has additional guidance on mask-wearing that contains a lot of helpful information.”
Dr. McBride: “The best mask is the one that stays on! It needs to fit well and be comfortable.”
Q: Is there anything I can do to help my kids boost their immune system as we go into flu and RSV season on top of Covid-19 risk?
Dr. McBride: “Kids should get the flu shot this fall. A healthy immune system starts with eating lots of fruits and veggies, getting enough sleep, and getting outside for exercise regularly. For more specific advice, always talk with the pediatrician.”
Dr. Morita: “The good news is that many of the prevention steps we take against Covid-19—including wearing masks and distancing—can also lower the risk of contracting other viruses like flu or RSV. But we’re already starting to see more of those viruses that were largely dormant last year, even before children return to school. Kids should keep up regular hand washing and avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s also important for kids to stay home from school if they’re not feeling well. Plenty of sleep, regular physical activity, and eating healthy foods can also do a world of good for prevention!”
Q: I’ve heard that ventilation matters, but does it really make much of a difference? Is there a way I can realistically evaluate my classroom’s ventilation system?
Dr. Morita: “Improving ventilation is one of the most important steps schools can take, because it reduces the concentration of virus particles in the air. One of the easiest ways is to open windows and doors if it’s safe to do so. Bringing fans into classrooms can help, especially if they can be secured to open windows. Schools should also work to upgrade their HVAC systems to bring in as much outside air as possible.
Of course, not every school has the resources to take that latter step, particularly those located in communities that are traditionally underserved—it’s especially important that additional funding get to schools that may lack the resources to make these changes. Improved air quality in schools should not be reserved only for students who live in wealthy school districts.”
Dr. McBride: Portable plug-in HEPA filters in classrooms can help. You can call your school and see if these improvements have been made.”
Q: Many parents don’t have access to a doctor they trust, either because it’s hard to find a good doctor nearby, or they don’t have reliable health insurance. What practical suggestions do you have for these people as they seek reliable and updated information?
Dr. McBride: “It's so hard to know who to trust these days. I suggest following a few different medical experts who don't have a political or financial agenda and who follow medical evidence and don't claim to know everything! Anyone who is certain about how the pandemic plays out isn't someone I'd trust.”
Dr. Morita: “For parents without health insurance, Federally Qualified Health Centers are available in most cities and many rural areas. The CDC’s website is a great place to start for national data and evidence-based guidance. State and local public health departments are also important sources of information for what’s happening at the community level.”
Q: I’ve spoken with parents whose kids who have social and sensory challenges, and they’re worried about the added challenges their kids will have going back to school after a year away. Can you offer any advice to them?
Dr. Stixrud: “For kids in public school with these challenges, it’s important to meet with teachers and develop IEPs (individualized education plans) if needed. We should remind educators how sensitive they are, let them know what’s worked in the past. A couple examples of solutions could be to offer noise-cancelling headphones or hall passes if a child gets over-stimulated. Get these things in place ahead of time, and check in regularly.
For the social part, what’s becoming clear is that if kids aren’t socially intuitive, we want to connect them with other kids who aren’t socially intuitive. They may connect best with other kids with social problems and connect over things like coding, gaming, anime, or Pokemon. They may not need real-life friends to the same extent as other kids, so if they developed online friendships during the pandemic, helping them maintain those may be helpful. We want to acknowledge that relatedness is important, but it manifests in different ways.”
Q: Parents are exhausted from managing all these unknowns. What’s a practical way you’d suggest we wrangle a feeling of control back?
Dr. Morita: “The most important thing that adults can do to protect the kids around them is to model good behavior—get vaccinated, wear masks, and follow the guidance from healthcare providers and public health officials. Adults also should be particularly attuned to their kids’ needs during this time. Allow them to share their feelings, listen to and answer their questions as best we can, and assure them that one thing this virus cannot take away is how much we love and care about them.”
Dr. Stixrud: “I suggest you sit down and make a list of the things you can control – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you express love to your family, how to get medical care when you need it. Take a little time to feel gratitude for those things.
There are many things we cannot control right now, and we will be more at peace if we give up trying to force or control them. You cannot, for example, control a virus. Acknowledging and accepting that can help with stress.”
Q: Is there anything else you’d recommend to parents and educators as we push into the fall?
Dr. Stixrud: “Communicate courage and confidence to your kids. We don’t want kids to feel sorry for themselves, because that strengthens their fears.
Ideally, parents serve as a non-anxious presence in their families. If you are experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety, you’ll help your children to do whatever you can do to alleviate your own stress. Try to learn from the pandemic and take the positives with you. Spend more time with family. Don’t overwhelm yourself with activity. Get enough sleep.”
Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe.” She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.