This time last year, the coronavirus pandemic kept Florida’s schools closed and forced students to continue their virtual learning from home. Now, with another school year underway, COVID-19 remains an uninvited guest in classrooms across the state. And with the Delta variant leading to record-high numbers of cases and hospitalizations, experts say younger students returning to school this fall are at as much of a risk of contracting the virus as they were last year – perhaps even more so.
“The Delta variant is a game-changer because it’s so highly transmissible,” says Tina Carroll-Scott, M.D., medical director of South Miami Children’s Clinic, which is supported by South Miami Hospital. “More kids are getting infected and requiring intensive care this time. We’re even seeing infants with COVID-19.”
Dorsey Goosby, M.D., director of medical information technology for Baptist Health and a pediatric specialist for more than 40 years, echoes Dr. Carroll-Scott’s assessment. “Roughly 25 percent of all the COVID cases we’re seeing now are pediatric patients, and many of these kids are winding up on ventilators,” he says. “Pediatric hospitals everywhere are stretched to capacity.”
Complicating matters is a hesitancy among some people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, Dr. Goosby says. “Social distancing, masking and hand-washing are all helping, but the vaccines themselves have proven incredibly effective at keeping people out of the hospital,” he says.
The most important thing you can do, Dr. Goosby says, is to stay informed by getting essential information from reliable sources. “Don’t get your medical news from the TV,” he advises. “For the most accurate, up-to-date information on COVID-19, go to the CDC’s website, the Florida Department of Health or the American Academy of Pediatrics.” Or, he says, just ask your doctor or pediatrician. “They keep up with all the latest developments, and they know your or your child’s health better than anyone.”
Now that children are finally returning to the classroom and the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval, Dr. Carroll-Scott says that, as adults and parents, “we have a responsibility to do the right thing” and help keep them in school. “That means getting vaccinated if you or your child are eligible, and making masking and other mitigation strategies a part of everyone’s daily routine,” she says. Dr. Carroll-Scott believes that the COVID-19 vaccines will be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for children five to 11 years of age within a month or so, and perhaps sometime next year for children under five.
In the meantime, what steps can you take to avoid COVID-19 exposure and keep your child healthy this school year? David Mishkin, M.D., an emergency medicine specialist with Baptist Health, offers these seven simple steps for keeping COVID-19 out of the classroom:
Pick a good mask. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), your mask should have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; completely cover your nose and mouth; fit snugly against the sides of your face with no gaps, and have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask. The CDC says to avoid masks that fit too loosely, as well as those with an exhalation valve, and to wash masks daily.
Double up. Send your child to school with at least one extra mask, in case one gets lost or dirty. Label the masks so they don’t get confused with another child’s. (Bonus: if you mark the masks on the outside, it helps the teacher learn your child’s name and recognize him or her more quickly.) Provide your child with a resealable plastic baggie to store their soiled mask.
Coach caution. Talk to your child about the importance of physical distancing and remind them not to share food, drinks, electronics, classroom supplies or other items. Although they may be glad to see their friends, this is not the time for hugs or high-fives. And be a good role model – if the adults in your child’s life wash their hands often, stay at least six feet apart from others and wear their mask in public spaces, then children are more likely to do the same.
Stop the spread. Keep your child home if they show any sign of illness. Check each morning to make sure they don’t have a sore throat or other signs of illness, such as cough, diarrhea, severe headache, vomiting or body aches. If your child has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher, or has had recent close contact with a COVID-19 case, they shouldn’t go to school – even if they seem fine.
Set a home routine. After months of remote learning and the summertime hiatus, many children may likely struggle with returning to a more structured environment. Be patient, but consistent. Keeping a regular schedule for bedtime, meals and other family activities provides a sense of control, predictability, calm and well-being for your child.
Engage in your child’s education. If you’re not a parent who typically engages with your child’s school, now would be a good time to start. Chat or email with the teacher if you have specific concerns about how your child is adjusting. And stay informed, as conditions can change quickly. Check your school district’s website, sign up for notifications or join a school-related social media group to stay on top of things.
Get help if you need it. Most children will manage well with the support of family, even if they exhibit some signs of anxiety, such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Some children, however, may have risk factors for more intense reactions, including severe anxiety or depression. Parents and caregivers should contact a professional if children exhibit significant changes in behavior.
Even if your child takes every precaution to stay safe at school, Dr. Mishkin warns, there’s still a possibility they could be exposed to another student, teacher or staff member who has COVID-19 and doesn’t even know it. If you suspect your child may have COVID, Dr. Mishkin suggests scheduling a pediatric urgent care visit through the Baptist Health Care On Demand app.
“A virtual visit with one of our physicians via Baptist Health Care On Demand is an easy and convenient way to get initial guidance on your child’s symptoms,” says Dr. Mishkin. “If those symptoms warrant further evaluation, they can refer you to a nearby Baptist Health Urgent Care or Urgent Care Express center for diagnosis and treatment.” If hospitalization is needed, he adds, younger patients are in excellent hands at Baptist Health, which partners with Nicklaus Children’s Hospital for Miami-area pediatric admissions.