Q: Even if my son’s school reopens, is it safe to send him?
A: Possibly. Some families who have children or other family members who are at high risk of serious COVID-19 infection may decide to pursue online school for the near future. Some families cannot accommodate having their kids at home for online school due to work or child care needs.
Interestingly, according to current studies, it is thought kids are less likely to become infected and to infect others, and children who become infected are more likely to have picked it up from a household member than to have been the one who introduced it to the household.
While there are different plans being discussed on how to get our kids back on the path to learning, there is a common desired endpoint – to do what is best for kids in a manner that is safest for kids, families, teachers and school staff.
Clearly, online learning is not the ideal for most students and their families. While some students prefer this modality, many had difficulties with achieving meaningful learning, access to a reliable computer and internet connectivity, and accountability in attending online classes. Families struggled with accommodations for technology and space to provide a supportive learning environment, often while trying to work from home themselves.
Suboptimal access to education and supports contributes to widening the gap between where some students are currently performing regarding education and where they need to be. This is especially true for minority children.
In-person schooling provides much more than a meaningful educational environment, especially for kids who have any special needs. Some families rely on their children receiving the mainstay of their meals at school. Services such as speech, physical and occupational therapy are delivered in the school settings, and these services have not been reliably delivered since schools closed.
Additionally, access to mental health supports offered through schools has been put on hold. There are increasing rates of anxiety, depression and feelings of social isolation among school-age kids and teens. Also of great concern is the fact that teachers are often the first to observe and raise concerns over childhood neglect and abuse, and are instrumental in identifying when families may need more supports.
In order for students, teachers and staff to safely return to in-person learning, there are important safety measures based on science and data that must be considered.
Teachers, staff and most students should wear masks, although some younger children and those with developmental or medical issues may not be able to safely wear masks. Encourage frequent and effective handwashing, have alcohol-based hand sanitizer readily available, and try to avoid touching of the face. For some younger kids, wearing a mask may encourage them to touch their faces more, so they may be safer to not wear masks. Distance desks six feet apart, if possible. Try to have smaller class sizes and keep kids in the same groups. Considering that New Mexico has such phenomenal weather, outdoor spaces should be strongly considered as potential spaces for learning. Regardless of how schools address creating a safe learning environment, two things are critical in ensuring success.
First, schools must be nimble and flexible as plans may have to change quickly based upon the COVID-19 prevalence in communities. And second, the federal government must provide funding for schools so they are able to implement physical plant changes, provide adequate staffing, and pay our teachers and school staff more to cover the extra work that will be needed to accomplish safe and effective learning.
Ziad K. Abdelnour, an often-quoted and successful businessman, said, “If a problem can be solved by writing a check, it’s not a problem, it’s an expense.” We must prioritize our kids and their education. Safety and well-being are a worthy expense. Please consider calling on our members of Congress to implore them to approve $200 billion to enable our schools to reopen safely.
There are many steps we can take to help our kids to have as positive an educational experience as possible during these challenging times and circumstances.
On another note, make sure your kids and teens are up-to-date on their immunizations. Some families were not able to bring their kids in for their routine check-ups during the quarantine.
If your child needs any immunizations, special immunization clinics will be held through Aug. 15 for all children 18 years old and younger as part of the Got Shots? immunization campaign. Check hsc.unm.edu/programs/nmimmunization/gotshot.html for a location near you.
Additionally, vaxviewnm.org enables individuals, parents and guardians to access, save and/or print official immunization records.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.