How to Stay Safe Returning to school during COVID-19

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CHARLOTTE, NC – What students and parents should do to protect themselves

The COVID-19 pandemic will change nearly every aspect of school when it reopens in August, all with safety against the virus in mind.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced July 14 that public schools will open at 50% capacity to allow for social distancing and combine that with remote learning online. Known as Plan B, or the hybrid schedule, it will alter how the state’s 1.5 million students ride the bus, sit in class, interact with other students, and even walk in hallways. For most students, the class will begin on Aug. 17.

The guidelines also allow school districts and families to opt for remote-only learning, depending on the situation. Parents should check with their local school district for specific details, as many continue to shape plans.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state’s second-largest school district, will have remote learning after students go through two weeks of orientation on campus.

Students, teachers, and staff will all be required to wear a face-covering while at school. The number of people in buildings will be limited to allow for the social distancing of at least 6 feet. Everyone will be screened for temperature and symptoms daily. More time will be allowed for cleaning and sanitizing.

Dr. Kymberly Selden, a physician with Novant Health Pediatrics Concord
Dr. Kymberly Selden

Dr. Kymberly Selden, a physician with Novant Health Pediatrics Concord, answered questions about how parents and students can prepare for the school year that will look like no other before it.

Charlotte, the state’s second-largest district, is going to remote learning after two weeks of in-class orientation. What should parents be thinking about?

First and foremost, parents should arm themselves with information.

  • Explore the 2020-’21 school reopening plan at the CMS website to have a good understanding of the plan details.
  • The state health department website is a valuable source of information about the spread of disease around the state. The Information for Individuals, Families, and Communities tab is especially helpful.

How can parents help their children manage all this?

Frankly, childcare issues for working families, job security, and supporting their kids in a virtual learning environment are of major concern for families during this difficult time. There are no clear-cut answers to these issues.

The American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website is a good resource for parents as they consider how to move forward, especially an article entitled “Return to School During COVID-19.”

  • Parents with children in CMS schools should familiarize themselves with the Power School Parent Portal and be knowledgeable about the remote learning platforms.
  • Child Care Resources may help parents find childcare solutions.

Kids will be required to wear masks. What if it makes them miserable?

Emphasize that this is how we keep you safe, and this is how we keep our family and the people in our community safe. We’re wearing our masks in public places and you’ll wear them when you go back to school. It’s going to be very different for you, but it’s something I think you’re going to be able to get used to.

If the parent or guardian is modeling those public safety guidelines already, in a way that is upbeat and positive, that is really going to help the child. Children are very adaptive and resilient. People marvel at how quickly children can adjust. They are checking for our attitude and where we (adults) are in all of this. Explain that it’s going to be a rule for your school. Children, for the most part, if they know it’s a rule, they will do as they’re asked.

How can students best protect themselves?

The first thing students can be doing now is behaving in ways that decrease community transmission and following public health guidelines.

  • Minimize contact with people who aren’t in their household.
  • Wear face coverings in public spaces.
  • Practice good hand hygiene.
  • They should start getting comfortable with what a safe distance (at least 6 feet) looks like and feels like, so it’s not one more thing that feels disruptive when they enter the school space.

What should parents discuss about this new-look school with their child?

Kids are taking cues from us. If we go into these discussions from a place of panic, worry, and fear – which are legitimate feelings – they will take those cues. If they hear us say things like “masks are not safe” or something that conveys that school is a dangerous place to be, it becomes increasingly difficult to allay a child’s fears. Instead, emphasize all the ways we can keep ourselves and each other safe. “Let’s go try on some masks. Let’s get some that you like and that fit well. Which ones do you want to pick out for yourself?” Put a positive spin on it as much as you can. You want to convey the things that are in our control and put the emphasis on that.

When your child comes home from school, should they change clothes immediately, and wash the clothes they had on?

I don’t think that’s really necessary. There isn’t any data or research that supports that we have to worry about viruses living on clothing. Hand hygiene is going to be the most important thing. I have always encouraged my patients, particularly during the school year, to wash their hands and face at the end of the school day. Always encourage them to wash their hands thoroughly and wipe their face-off.

What extra steps should be taken if you have a family member living with you who has immunity issues?

Households that have a member with a serious underlying medical condition should delve into their school’s plan. It is important that they have as much information as possible to address their concerns about safety. Understanding that even the best of plans can’t eliminate the risk of catching COVID, that family may choose a 100% virtual learning option if it is available.

Are there certain communal spots at a school that are more worrisome?

Yes, in particular school buses, hallways, cafeterias, gymnasiums, band room, choir room. But schools have found really good ways to deal with distancing in those spaces where people tend to gather.

NOTE: Buses will be limited to one student per seat. All physical education is recommended to be held outside as much as possible. Students won’t gather in cafeterias for meals. Instead, they will eat pre-packaged meals in their classroom or outside.

What are some quick tips for every age group?

  • Elementary students: The little ones (kindergarten and first grade) may need a little practice with face coverings and getting comfortable with it on their face. They should practice specifically not touching the mask or their face once it’s on. Practice washing your hands, too. Coach them that when they reunite with their teachers and friends, they’ll have to keep their distance.
  • Middle school students: Practice keeping their face coverings on. Don’t share their drinks or their phones with others. The phones are a frequently touched hard surface that respiratory droplets can land on. Wipe down your phone, iPad, or laptop.
  • High school students: They should begin now limiting their interactions with their friends. This is a source of some of the increase in the community spread that we’re seeing.  If one friend or two comes over, you’re socially distanced and you’re outside, that can be a safe get-together to have. But standing in groups and taking selfies together, we shouldn’t be doing that.

How should parents handle the screening process?

It’s absolutely important that parents are honest about the daily health screening questionnaire they’re asked to submit. It’s essential. There’s not going to be a punishment if you answer yes to one of the screening questions. We really want people to hold their school community in such high regard that they’re committed to being truthful.

If you’re contacted by someone – a school nurse or someone from the local health department – who gives you guidance about quarantining or going to get tested, please follow that guidance. Take those calls. Follow that advice. It’s not personal. It is to protect the entire school community and the entire community at large.

What is your largest overall concern?

The concern is what it has always been. Can we make the school a safe environment for teachers, staff, and children? I’ve shared those concerns with pediatricians, parents, educators, and administrators. We’re all worried, on some level and degree, about being able to go to school in a way that’s safe.

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