Your COVID-19 back to school safety guide

Published July 13, 2020


Young girl at school with a fask mask

A lot of kids are excited to get back to school. But this is unlike any other school year, so parents have plenty of questions.

School districts are getting creative with how to reopen safely: smaller or spaced out classes, more hand washing and minimizing larger groups in cafeterias or hallways. So far, pediatric cases of COVID-19 seem to be less severe than cases in adults.

In this safety guide, find out:

  • What to add to your shopping list
  • How to schedule school physicals
  • Is it safe for kids to wear masks?
  • Reducing risk in sports and other activities
  • How to talk to worried kids about school

Back to school shopping

Along with traditional notebooks and pencils, add some new supplies to your list:

  • Kid-friendly masks (bonus points for fun designs)
  • Hand sanitizer (contains at least 70% alcohol)
  • Disinfecting wipes/sprays for your teacher's classroom

When buying masks for kids, multiple layers of fabric is good. Ideally the fabric is breathable and resists water. The more snug it fits around your child's face, the more effective it will capture anything they're exhaling or that they might be exposed to.

If you can't find sanitizer in stores, you can make your own hand sanitizer at home. Family physician Amber Brown Keebler, MD, also recommends backpacks and lunch boxes that are easy to clean and sanitize.

Keep kids' health on track

Immunizations and school physicals are perhaps more important now than ever. Dr. Brown Keebler says, "Pediatricians use school physicals as a comprehensive overview of your child's health. We measure blood pressure, height and weight. We also administer important vaccines." Back-to-school appointments are best done in person, if possible. Your local doctor's office continues to be one of the safest places to go to.

Are your kids due for a school physical? Call 800.922.0000 for a primary care appointment. 

Is it safe for kids to wear masks?

Infectious diseases expert Mark Rupp, MD, says "The wearing of masks is not harmful." That goes for school children too. Dr. Rupp notes that wearing a mask may even help people with asthma.

Dr. Rupp sees masks as a matter of safety. "Kids resist sitting in a car seat at first, and then it becomes part of the natural process of riding in a car. Masks work the same way. If you teach kids that masks are good for the safety of their classmates, they'll be more willing to listen."

For younger children, a reward chart is a fantastic way to encourage mask wearing. Psychiatrist and educator Howard Liu, MD, says, "When trying to shape behavior, positive reinforcement works better than punishment."

As parents know all too well, children notice hypocrisy and mimic behaviors that aren't ideal. Help your kids learn how to wear a mask by wearing one yourself in public. "Parents and older siblings are the best models for wearing masks," says Dr. Liu. If you wear a mask without complaint, your children will too. A quick recap:

•    Wash your hands before putting on the mask and after taking it off
•    Cover your nose and mouth with the mask
•    Don't wear a mask around your chin

There are two groups that masks aren't ideal for: some special needs kids and children ages two and under.

"Some kids – especially kids with sensory or behavioral conditions – may have problems wearing a mask," says John Lowe, PhD, while answering questions from the public. "Clear face shields can help these kids communicate while protecting others. Face shields aren't as effective as masks, but they will block some droplets."

What about younger children? Kids over the age of three can wear masks without worry. Two-year-olds and below tend to play with them or take them off. A COVID-19 researcher, Dr. Lowe says, "I was a mask skeptic for children, but my four-year-old proved me wrong. With very little coaching, she wears a mask in public very well."

Critical care physician Kelly Cawcutt, MD, debunks three common mask myths here. 

Reducing risk in sports and other activities

"Participating in extracurricular activities is a personal choice for families," says Dr. Brown Keebler. "Assessing your family's health and those you see regularly can affect how much risk you and your family are willing to take on." For example, if grandma helps with childcare (and she has diabetes or high blood pressure), you may want to protect her and limit how many families your child closely interacts with.

For sports and clubs, here are some general guidelines:

•    Outdoors is better than indoors
•    Distance (6 feet apart or more) is better than close contact
•    Smaller numbers are better than large groups
•    Masks are better than no masks
•    Avoid sharing equipment or water bottles
•    Wash hands before and after kids interact with others

How school affects mental health

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports in-person learning, because remote learning may mean social isolation and food insecurity. Even so, some kids may worry about returning to school. 

Child psychiatrist Katrina Cordts, PhD, recommends setting a positive tone for younger children. "As a parent, you often set the tone for your child's experience. By modeling excitement and confidence for your child, it sends a message to your child that things will be okay." Child psychiatrist Ryan T. Edwards, MD shares some tips for talking to kids about coronavirus.

Dr. Brown Keebler adds, "Talk about what measures are being put in place at school. Often having something kids can actively do helps ease anxiety – like eat healthy foods, washing hands regularly and exercise." You can also remind them that children – especially elementary students – have been mostly unaffected by the coronavirus. 

Dr. Liu says, "If your kids have persistent anxiety, consider having them meet with a therapist skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)." You can schedule an appointment with any of these experienced therapists who specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Have more questions?

If you have any other back-to-school questions, a school counselor or principal can ease your concerns. As the situation changes locally, schools may change in response. At some point in the school year, there may be a shift back to virtual learning. You might come up with a family plan now for what you'll do if that happens.

We learn more about the coronavirus every day. Get the latest guidance – with your unique health condition in mind – by scheduling an appointment with your family doctor.

This school year will look different, but we're all in this together.

As the Director of Research for the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit and National Quarantine Unit, Dr. Lowe is hopeful. "There's a great deal of uncertainty. We're learning more every day about how the virus works and how to effectively manage it. I want to applaud all the school administrators and school staff across Nebraska that are working really hard to figure out what's best for our kids," says Dr. Lowe.