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COVID-19: Preparing to Return to School

Posted on Aug 03, 2020

As the school year nears, parents, students, teachers and staff have questions about school safety during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Allison Messina, M.D., chair of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, explains what schools should do to protect students and staff.


Where should schools start?

Schools should have a clearly defined plan for how to keep students and teachers safe. For example, we know now, six months into this pandemic, that masks are very important in reducing the risk of spread of this disease. Schools should adopt universal masking for students and staff. Physical distancing is also very important, especially at times when masks cannot be worn such as at lunch.

Inquire as to how your school is encouraging and enforcing physical distancing rules. This might mean that students’ desks are spaced more than 6-feet apart, or that students will eat lunch in smaller groups where more space can be put between them. Making sure that children have access to places they can wash or sanitize their hands often is also very important. Is hand sanitizer available and convenient? Finally, schools should have very defined and non-punitive plans to deal with student absences. If kids are feeling sick, they should be encouraged to stay home. 

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

With this much COVID-19 disease in the community, and given that children can have COVID and have no symptoms, I think that this is a scenario that will occur. If a situation like this happens, the school and the health department will work together to decide which students might be at risk of exposure. Risk would be much less of course, if everyone adhered to masks and physical distancing.

The people determined to be at highest risk of exposure would be those who spent more time less than 6 feet away from the person with COVID-19. These people would then be asked to quarantine for 14 days and monitor for symptoms. This is because a person can become ill within a 14-day period after exposure. Many schools are already working out plans to have online learning available for children who must quarantine. Remember, many people in quarantine never do get sick, so this would be an ideal time for online learning in order not to get behind. 

What about schools that offer a choice between online learning and in-person learning. How can a parent choose?

This is of course going to be a personal decision for each family. But, some considerations you might want weigh are: Does the child have a medical condition that would put her or him at risk for more serious disease? We do know that underlying heart and lung conditions, and possibly other conditions like obesity and diabetes put some at higher risk of disease. If your child has a medical condition, it would be best to discuss this with your pediatrician so that they can help you make the best medical decision for your child. It might be that an online version of school might be the safest way to go for a student at higher risk of serious illness.

Another thing to consider is how best your child learns. If your child is a very hands-on learner who needs structure in order to do his or her best, maybe this might be a child who could benefit from in-person instruction. Next, consider your individual school’s plan and what kind of flexibility it offers. 

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital experts. Visit each Monday for the latest report. 

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