What health experts want you to know about the upcoming school year and COVID-19

Four things parents should understand before deciding whether or not they should send their children back to school

What health experts want you to know about the upcoming school year and COVID-19

4 Minute Read

The new school year fast approaches, but the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic have yet to retreat. During a live virtual panel Tuesday, three experts from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and UT Physicians discussed the challenges of virtual learning and the mental health consequences of social isolation.

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Can groups of people gather indoors safely?

Yes, it is possible to congregate safely, with the right precautions, said Michael Chang, M.D., an infectious disease pediatrician at UT Physicians and McGovern Medical School.

A case study showed zero transmission at a hair salon in Missouri where two symptomatic stylists wore double-layered face coverings and saw 139 clients, all of whom wore some form of face covering, as well. After testing 67 clients, no one tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition, the professional sports world has proven that “bubbles” work. Sequestering teams in strictly controlled campuses has proven to be mostly effective in preventing the spread of virus.

But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to return to a school campus, in part because so little is known about transmission within that environment.

“There isn’t really a zero-risk option to having kids physically in school,” said Chang, who also treats patients at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.  “For areas where we have high community spread, like Houston, where we see a 20 percent positivity rate, this is probably not the time to open schools yet. We probably can’t have physical in-person school at the moment with these high positivity rates.”

Once schools reopen, how can parents protect their families? What should they do if their child tests positive or is exposed to the coronavirus?

Chang recommends parents screen their children daily, preferably before school and after school, to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to other students and families.

Fever, difficulty breathing and cough are common symptoms of COVID-19; however, other telltale signs of the disease are loss of taste or smell.

“Certainly, if you identify any of those symptoms, you want to be on alert,” Chang said. “It’s worthwhile for parents to look at those symptoms before sending their kids to school in the morning. Arguably, that’s the most critical time because you don’t want to send a child to school who may be symptomatic.”

The success of schools reopening hinges on schools and districts executing all the proper protocols and procedures—including placing students into cohorts and insisting that everyone wear masks, social distance and practice proper hygiene, Chang said. Still, high community spread will make it difficult for schools to identify whether a student or staff member was exposed within the school or out in the community if someone tests positive.

“You need to expect chaos when schools do reopen,” Chang said. “There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and we’re still learning more about this every day.”

What are the mental health ramifications of virtual learning?

The loss of peer interaction can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression in adolescents, said Melissa Goldberg, PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UT Physicians and McGovern Medical School.

Building and maintaining social connections is important for adolescents, she added, and a majority of the socialization comes from the school setting.

“Especially with COVID, if they’re not in school, families might be protective—for good reason—but it’s going to interfere with peer interaction,” Goldberg said. “I bet we’re going to see increased rates of loneliness and depression.”

For many kids, she added, school is an escape from stress that they experience at home. If they’re continuing with virtual learning, they might not have that escape that they had in the past. Increased stress combined with additional hours spent online could manifest in cyberbullying.

For younger children, virtual learning could impact their social skills long-term.

“We want our kids to learn basic things like how to share and other pro-social behaviors—how to navigate conflicts, how to tolerate separation from their caregivers,” Goldberg explained.

Without regular social exposure, there may be increased rates of social anxiety, separation anxiety from parents and social skills deficits, she added.

How can parents improve the virtual learning setting?

Take a moment, reflect on last spring and think about what worked and what didn’t, so you can make some adjustments, said Anson Koshy, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at UT Physicians/McGovern Medical School/Children’s Learning Institute.

Creating a structured, consistent and predictable environment, especially for students who qualify for special education, is one way for parents to tackle the new academic year.

“That is incredibly easy to talk about, but it is incredibly challenging to implement at home,” Koshy said.

He suggested “thinking small” in terms of the duration of school activities.

Children in kindergarten through second grade may be spending more than 25 minutes on an activity, but it’s often difficult to hold their attention on a challenging task. Koshy said it’s OK to break up that time into smaller segments to keep kids engaged. He tells parents that, if 25 minutes is feasible, great; if not, start with 5 to 10 minutes of very clear academic work and build from there.

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