As kids head back to school, there's likely a lot of excitement for seeing friends and having a more "normal" school year than last. However, there may also be some concern about how to keep students safe. COVID-19 is still spreading – and other common germs, viruses and infections are still easily shared among students.
"There are many benefits for children to be in school, and thanks to a highly effective vaccine, this year has promise to be a much better year for many families. But factors such as the Delta variant pose a risk to the progress we've made in the pandemic," says Carla Garcia Carreno, M.D., Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Children's Health℠. "In addition, we're seeing the return of other respiratory illnesses as COVID-19 precautions relax, including RSV, rhinovirus (common cold virus) and parainfluenza (the virus that causes croup and other respiratory infections). That's why it's important to take steps to keep your child healthy."
While there's no way to fully prevent the spread of germs and viruses at school, Dr. Garcia Carreno shares advice on how to prevent COVID-19 and other illnesses during the school year.
1. Get the COVID-19 vaccine when eligible
The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is for everyone who is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children ages 12 and older. Getting vaccinated can help the school year be successful without interruption for kids.
If you have young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, it's helpful for everyone else in your household who is eligible to get vaccinated. You can also focus on other prevention strategies to keep them safe.
2. Wear a mask and keep your distance
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all students (over the age of 2), teachers and staff wear a face mask inside schools, even those who are fully vaccinated. This is especially important in areas of high community transmission.
Wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the highly contagious Delta variant. This helps protect yourself as well as others, especially those who are unvaccinated or have a weakened immune system.
One added benefit of mask wearing is preventing the spread of other respiratory viruses like the flu. Make sure you have a process for regularly cleaning masks at home, whether that is throwing them into the laundry after use or hand washing them in soap and water. See tips to help your child adjust to wearing a mask.
The CDC also recommends students continue to practice a physical distance of 3 feet. As part of physical distancing, you should remind your children that they shouldn't share items like masks, pencils, toys, food or drinks.
3. Keep children home if they are sick
If your child shows signs of being sick, keep them home from school to avoid spreading germs and potential viruses. You should keep your child home when they have any of the following symptoms:
- Cough/congestion (above normal from baseline allergy symptoms)
If your child has symptoms of COVID-19 or has been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, they should stay home and get tested. It's helpful to have a plan in place so you know what to do if your child has to stay home from school at any point. You can also research COVID-19 testing locations ahead of time so you know where to go if you need quick access to testing.
4. Encourage hand washing
Hand washing is an important way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. If a virus is living on a child's hands and they touch their face, they may become infected.
Dr. Garcia Carreno recommends encouraging your children to wash their hands frequently both at home and at school. Your child should wash their hands:
- After blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing
- After handling their face mask
- After leaving a public place
- After touching animals or pets
- After using the restroom
- Before and after eating food
- Before touching their face
If soap and water aren't available, your child can use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol instead.
"You can provide your child with hand sanitizer for school or wipes to clean their desk area," says Dr. Garcia Carreno. "These are things that could really help prevent the spread of viruses to your child."
5. Stay up-to-date on routine exams and vaccines
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have delayed routine medical care and vaccinations – and this can have long-term health effects. Delaying essential trips like medical appointments can come with risks.
Keep your child up-to-date on all vaccines and keep routine checkup appointments. If you aren't sure if your child is up-to-date or not, call your pediatrician's office to find out. When you do go to the doctor, follow precautions to get care safely.
6. Get enough rest
Sleep helps keep the body healthy, giving it time to fight off infections and repair any damage. It's important to remember that children need more sleep than adults to stay healthy. Aim for the following amounts of sleep for children:
- Children ages 3 to 5 need 10 to 13 hours of sleep per day (including naps).
- Children ages 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours of sleep.
- Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
Help your child get the sleep they need by enforcing an age-appropriate bedtime. You should also provide them with an environment designed for sleep. It should be cool, dark, quiet and free of screens. For younger children, a bedtime routine can help them settle into sleep more easily.
7. Eat a healthy diet
In addition to sleep, children need a healthy, well-balanced diet full of vitamins and nutrients. A healthy diet can help their bodies function well and prevent disease. Your child's diet should include:
- Lean proteins like fish, chicken or beans
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
Avoid added sugar and sugary beverages.
8. Address stress and mental health with your child
There's no doubt about it – the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on everyone. But, here's the good news: Many experts agree that the benefits of kids being back in school with their friends and receiving in-person instruction outweigh the risks of virus spread when proper safety precautions are in place.
However, children may still feel stressed about the changes in routine and behaviors due to the pandemic. They may also be anxious about returning to school.
Check in with your child frequently to see how they are feeling. Watch out for warning signs of anxiety, such as changes in sleep, eating or behavior. Consult a mental health professional if needed.
Talk with your pediatrician for more advice
Recommendations for keeping children healthy during the school year may change depending on the level of COVID-19 spread in your area. In addition, if you have a child who has a health condition that increases their risk for severe COVID-19 illness, you may consider additional precautions. See more information on our back-to-school guidance page. If have any questions about how to keep your child healthy during the school year, talk to your child's pediatrician.
Prevention is key to safeguard children returning to the classroom against illness. Check out 8 tips to help your child avoid COVID-19 and other viruses.
Learn more about COVID-19
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
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