Judging by the numerous “back to school” commercials that are now airing frequently on television and online, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” again. Public and private schools across Florida will reopen their doors to welcome students and faculty into the halls of primary learning for another year. The 2021-2022 school year will be an exceptional one because many county school districts will discontinue emergency online education (eLearning) and return to prepandemic academics. Virtual K-12 education will still be a ﬁxture for parents who prefer to educate their children at home, but in-person education will return full-time to many districts. Since spring of 2020, Florida parents had the option of eLearning as a third choice in the education of their children due to the COVID-19 pandemic. eLearning afforded the opportunity for students to interact at home with their brick-and-mortar teacher by way of online tools such as Canva and Google Classroom. Many did not believe inperson learning was safe for children and feared the coronavirus transmission could extend into their own homes. However, with the availability of vaccines such as Moderna and Pﬁzer, the outlook appears promising. But that promise glimmers only for middle- and high-school age groups and not elementary students. Trials are being run to check the safety and efﬁcacy of the vaccines on children under the age of 12. In the meantime, children are at risk for contracting the virus and its cousin, the now dominant Delta variant.
According to the Florida Department of Health there are 21,975,117 Floridians, and of that number, only 11,292,335 have been vaccinated in the 12-and-up age group. The Delta variant, which has a high transmissibility factor, is the primary cause for the massive uptick in new cases, hospitalizations, and subsequent morbid outcomes. In just a four-week span of time, data has shown that covid cases have climbed exponentially. Florida Health Department records reveal that on June 11 there were 10,459 new cases of COVID-19 throughout the state. By July 9 the state had recorded 45,603 new cases. Experts expect this trend to mirror what is occurring with the Delta variant in other countries if Americans remain in a holding pattern regarding vaccinations. But the alarm is not just in the black-and-white numbers.
Because children under the age of 12 are not able to receive the covid vaccines, they are the group most susceptible to contracting the dangerous virus or the Delta variant. Hospitals across the country are reporting that children are testing positive and are being admitted into intensive care units for respiratory support because of contracting “covid-pneumonia” and are placed on ventilators. Dr. Rick Barr, chief clinical ofﬁcer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, Ark., remarked that “we’re seeing more and more children that are admitted because of their COVID infection. That’s the primary reason for their hospital admission." Dr. Jennifer Arnold, neonatologist on staff at the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., noted that the Delta variant is spreading quickly in areas “with low vaccination rates” and the ones primarily affected are the “unvaccinated and unfortunately kids,” adding: “We are seeing serious complications in kids in fact at my own hospital right now has the highest number of kids with Covid-19 than any other time during the pandemic.” Elsewhere such as in Indonesia, children are experiencing morbid outcomes due to contracting the Delta variant.
ALL PLAY A ROLE
But what can parents in Florida do to ensure that sending their children back to school will be a rewarding and safe time? The Centers for Disease Control suggest that parents of young children become vaccinated so that they do not transmit COVID-19 or the Delta variant to their offspring who are at risk. Find out if school districts will implement the CDC “Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools” which provides scientiﬁc tools and suggestions for how schools can reopen this fall safely. The CDC guidance suggests that “masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.” In Florida, there are school districts such as Hillsborough County whose policy is masks are optional even though The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a back-to-school recommendation that all children from age 2 and up wear masks while attending classes regardless of vaccination status. Dr. Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health, said that “we need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers – and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely.”
Another way parents can ensure the health and safety of their children is by way of prevention. Reviewing handwashing and respiratory etiquette information, packing hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, and extra masks in backpacks and lunches are constant reminders to keep children vigilant and safe. Assisting teachers in the stocking of products such as Lysol disinfectant sprays, wipes, Kleenex and masks for the classroom are other good ways to keep children safe in school throughout the year. To keep the household free from COVID-19, once arriving home from school, parents can create an area where their school-aged children can remove shoes and disinfect backpacks and other items. Communication regularly with local school ofﬁcials as the pandemic continues will help keep parents and guardians up to date on the latest change in protocols and procedures implemented locally and districtwide. This is important for the unvaccinated members of the household and those with pre-existing health conditions that may pose a serious risk to contracting Covid-19.
While some parents may be nervous about their children returning to school, children themselves are just as nervous and may experience anxiety. Parents can open the lines of communication with their children to ease the sense of fear and anxiousness that their children may feel. Pediatricians suggest that parents speak to their children about what to expect in classrooms, what is going to be different, the importance of social distancing and not sharing personal items with others. Do not overwhelm them with too much information. Do not give out a lot of details. Simply explain why the precautions are necessary. If a parent notices the signs of anxiety are profound, then perhaps a consultation with a mental health professional is necessary.
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital opines that “going back to in-person school is not a major COVID-19 risk factor for children if they maintain prevention measures such as wearing masks and physical distancing.” So this year, back to school can still be “the most wonderful time of the year” for parents, students, and faculty with an ounce of preparation and guidance.