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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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Heading Back to School: How to Prepare and Keep Your Family Safe

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the Tampa Bay region, a new school year is already upon us. It can be tough for parents to grapple with sending kids back or to opt for online education. Allison Messina, M.D., Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and serves on the medical advisory group as part of the Pinellas County School Board’s reopening task force, shares what parents need to know about the upcoming school year.

How can I make sure my child’s school is safe for students and staff to return?

Schools should have a clearly defined plan for how to keep students and teachers safe but families should learn more about plans for masking, distancing, cleaning and what happens if a student is sick. Masks are very important in reducing the risk of spread of COVID-19, so schools should adopt universal masking for students and staff. Physical and social distancing should be encouraged at times when masks cannot be worn such as at lunch, so ask how the school is encouraging and enforcing these rules. Cleaning measures should be discussed but kids should also have access to wash/sanitize hands often. If a child is sick, they should be encouraged to stay home and schools should have very defined and non-punitive plans to deal with student absences.

How can families choose between online learning and in person learning?

This is going to be a personal decision for each family, but some considerations might include:

  • Medical conditions – Consider whether your child’s condition would put him or her at risk for complications if they contracted coronavirus. Underlying heart and lung conditions, and possibly other conditions like obesity and diabetes, could put kids at higher risk. It is best to discuss this with your pediatrician so they can help you make the best medical decision for your child.
  • Your child’s learning environment/behavior – If your child is a hands-on learner who needs structure in order to do his or her best, perhaps they would benefit from traditional school instruction.
  • Flexibility – Check out your school’s plan and the flexibility it offers, considering whether it’s easy to flex between in-person and online instruction if things change.

What happens if a student with COVID-19 comes to school?

While concerning, there is a lot of community-spread COVID-19 disease occurring, and given that children can have the virus and have no symptoms, this is a scenario that will almost certainly happen. If it does, the school and the health department will work together to decide which students might be at risk of exposure. Those who spent more time less than six feet away from the person with COVID are at highest risk. These people would then be asked to quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms. Many schools are already working out plans to have online learning available for children who must quarantine.

What can we do now to prepare our children?

Getting children used to wearing a mask is very important, so it’s good to start practicing now. As a parent, you can be a good role model by wearing a mask yourself and set this expectation for your children. Encouraging good hand hygiene and explaining the importance of washing their hands now more than ever before is also extremely important. In addition to sanitizing their hands before eating or after using the restroom, they’ll need to get used to doing so after touching door knobs or shared surfaces. Here are best practices for using soap and water as well as sanitizer.


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About the Author: Dr. Messina is the chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. She joined the pediatric infectious disease program in 2006. A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center/Children’s Medical Center, Dallas, followed by a pediatric infectious diseases fellowship at UT/Southwestern Medical Center. She was a staff pediatrician at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. Dr. Messina was named Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital physician of the year in the 2019 Johns Hopkins Medicine Clinical Excellence Awards. A fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Messina is board certified pediatrics and pediatric disease. She is a member of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Society, the American Society for Microbiology and the Infectious Disease Society of America. Dr. Messina serves as a reviewer for the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.

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