How to Keep Children Safe as Schools Reopen

Four NewYork-Presbyterian pediatric experts discuss the risks and rewards of kids returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For parents and kids, the fall is traditionally filled with the anticipation of an exciting new school year. But this year, there’s been nothing routine about children returning to the classroom.

With many schools reopening for in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety has mounted among parents and guardians who are trying to make seemingly impossible decisions amid a deluge of ever-changing data, emotional ups and downs, and many unknowns.

To help navigate the minefield of questions and concerns about protecting your family in this unprecedented back-to-school season, we brought together four leading pediatric experts from NewYork-Presbyterian to share their professional opinions and personal experiences:

  • Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, director of pediatric telemedicine at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network
  • Dr. Steven Kernie, chief of pediatric critical care and hospital medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital
  • Dr. Christine Salvatore, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital
  • Dr. Mary Ward, child psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital.

In the first episode of our new podcast Health Matters Today, our experts bring together their collective insight gained from months of fighting on the front lines in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez

Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez

Along with providing their best advice for maintaining the physical and mental well-being of both kids and grown-ups, they also stress that whether you choose remote or in-person learning, “there are no right or wrong answers,” says Dr. Bracho-Sanchez.

“Each family’s circumstances are different,” Dr. Bracho-Sanchez adds, “and it’s our responsibility to try to support them in whatever decision they make and help that child thrive.”

Here are their top tips for keeping families safe — and for our full discussion about the risks and rewards of reopening school doors, listen to our episode of Health Matters Today.

Keep Sick Kids at Home

The rule about not sending kids to school when they aren’t feeling well applies now more than ever — especially with cold and flu season around the corner. “If your child has a cough or fever, keep them home and then talk to your doctor,” says Dr. Salvatore, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine. “This was true even before COVID.”

It’s also important for everyone in the family to get a flu shot because “influenza is way more transmittable among kids compared to the COVID,” says Dr. Salvatore.

For In-Person Learning, Factor in Your Child’s Age

Scientists are still learning about the role children play in the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but evidence suggests that age makes a difference. One large study from South Korea found that children younger than 10 were about half as likely as adults to spread the virus. However, kids ages 10 and older were found to spread the virus at least as much as adults do. A CDC report released in September also found a difference when it came to age: Adolescents ages 12 to 17 were approximately twice as likely to have the virus than children ages 5 to 11.

Dr. Christine Salvatore

Dr. Christine Salvatore

For parents who are weighing the risks of in-person schooling, Dr. Salvatore says to keep that data in mind. “I tell parents that we have to distinguish between age groups,” she says.

“[The younger kids] are really the ones who probably need to be in school the most,” adds Dr. Kernie, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “For the older children, the adolescents, and the college-age kids, it’s a little different because they clearly do get disease. They oftentimes are not symptomatic. But they’re clearly transmitting it, and for that population [choosing a school model] becomes a bit more complicated.”

Be Prepared for Starts and Stops

The reality is that as schools physically reopen, and as more people head indoors due to colder weather, suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases likely will occur, which may result in classroom cohorts self-isolating or schoolwide closures. “It’s one of the challenges that all the schools will face,” says Dr. Kernie.

Dr. Steven Kernie

Dr. Steven Kernie

But those breaks in the school calendar don’t necessarily signal a massive COVID outbreak or a long-term shutdown. “Parents have to be prepared because there will be starts and stops,” says Dr. Kernie. “Going forward, at least for the next several months, most schools will experience the equivalent of ‘snow days’ or at-home learning days. There will be a single child or a teacher who tests positive, and there needs to be some evaluation around having a break from in-person school, doing the contact tracing, doing all of the things that need to occur to ensure it doesn’t become widespread.”

Keep COVID Conversations Age Appropriate

While parents may understandably feel anxious, try to shield children from adult concerns. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of adults sharing their fears and anxieties with other adults,” says Dr. Ward, an associate professor of psychology research in pediatrics and of psychology research in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. “There are certain topics that are overly burdensome for children.”

If you do need to discuss COVID-19 and how it’s affecting the family, keep conversations age appropriate. For very young children, stick to easy explanations. “If they say, ‘Why are we wearing masks?’ ‘Because that’s what we’re told to do,’” advises Dr. Ward. “For families who want to give a little bit more information, say something very simple like, ‘The virus is out there, and we want to keep everyone safe, so we’re being very careful.’”

Dr. Mary Ward

Dr. Mary Ward

For older children and teens, “offer them more balanced news,” says Dr. Ward, and monitor where they are getting their information. And for young adults who feel a sense of invincibility in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, try to keep your discussions rational.

“Throughout the country, we’re seeing spikes in college-age populations because they’re not following the rules,” says Dr. Ward. “Rather than parents getting authoritarian and laying down the law, it’s best to talk about the expectable consequences: If you don’t wear your mask, and don’t maintain distance, and people in your group start getting sick, they’re going to close school. You can’t have it both ways.”

Turn to Your Doctors for Support

Beyond diagnosing and treating symptoms, a pediatrician can offer support. “Please reach out to us,” says Dr. Ward. “We are here to support you. Some very simple changes have seen very positive results with the distress reducing and everybody feeling better.”

Keep Calm at Home

Even when the world outside is chaotic or uncertain, a happy household will help ensure a child’s well-being, says Dr. Ward. “Set priorities about what will maintain peace in the family,” she says. “This often means cutting way back on other activities. But if there is peace within their home and they feel confident that their parents are in charge, children can withstand a lot. Children are resilient, children are strong, and children are fine when they feel safe.”

Be Flexible — and Forgiving

While it’s important for families to establish routines and provide structure to their days, Dr. Kernie says it’s equally as important to be forgiving and flexible with each other. “I think we all need to be a little more kind and understanding than we might otherwise be,” he says. “We need to keep it in perspective. It seems like we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we have. But we’re not going to do this forever. It’s not permanent, and we will get through this.”

Listen to the full episode and read a transcript of the conversation.