Johns Hopkins experts share tips to protect kids heading back to school

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Children's Health

Children across the nation are heading back to school, a time of year that can bring a variety of emotions from excitement to anxiety. However, this school year has an extra layer of uncertainty amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s important to take precautions to fight the spread of the disease in the classroom — particularly as the highly contagious delta variant is circulating.

Johns Hopkins Children’s Center (JHCC) experts recommend the following:

  • Children 12 years and older should get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Students should wear a mask with at least two layers of tightly woven fabric.
  • Masks should fit well, covering the nose and mouth.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend masking for all students in grades K-12, even those who are fully vaccinated.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine and wearing a face mask are the two most important strategies to decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools and to keep children safely learning in person. Mask-wearing also can prevent the spread of other viruses that might cause them to miss school.”

Kate Connor, M.D., M.S.P.H., JHCC pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Connor recommends that parents check with their child’s school as to its mandatory COVID-19 safety precautions. However, she strongly encourages parents to send their children to school masked, even if it’s not required.

Along with ensuring children are physically protected against COVID-19, parents may have to deal with some pandemic-related stress and not just the usual back-to-school jitters. JHCC experts suggest calmly talking with children about what to expect when they return and pointing out the precautions that will be in place to keep them safe.

The experts also recommend parents monitor how their children are doing emotionally by asking simple questions such as “How are you feeling about going back to school?”

“Like most big changes in routine, going back to school in person could take some adjustment time for children,” says JHCC child psychologist Andrea Young, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “So, if the kids seem a little overwhelmed or more reserved than usual, check in with them about their thoughts and feelings.”

Young adds that if parents notice any worsening or persistent irritability, anxiety or sadness, they should consult their child’s pediatrician or a mental health expert.

“It’s also important for parents to be aware of their own anxiety about the return to school, so they don’t transfer it to their children,” she says.

To ease the transition into the school year, Connor and Young recommend gradually shifting children’s bedtimes back 10 minutes earlier each night in the week before school starts. In this way, they will be well rested and able to rise earlier.

Finally, the JHCC experts say parents should check with their child’s pediatrician to ensure routine vaccinations — including those required to attend class — are up to date and annual checkups have been completed before school starts.

“The past 1-1/2 years of the pandemic have brought a wave of emotions for parents and children alike,” Connor says. “Returning to in-person schooling is much needed for the health, education and overall well-being of students, so we have to prepare them as much as possible to have a safe return to the classroom.”

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