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Healthy Living

Back to school tips for keeping kids healthy

Sending your child back to the classroom this fall? Here’s a pediatrician’s advice for keeping them healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back-to-school looks very different this year. And parents everywhere are asking themselves (and their pediatricians), “should I send my child back to school?” There’s no doubt that school plays a critical role in kids’ lives, not only for their educational needs, but for their emotional well-being. But with COVID-19 cases rising in some areas, and the uncertainty of the pandemic, it’s a difficult decision to make.

Dr. Stacey Cummings, pediatrician at Geisinger, offers some guidance and tips for keeping kids healthy, especially if they’re headed back to the classroom.

The big question: Should I send my child back to school?

With schools closing early in the spring, many kids are missing their friends and teachers and are excited to get back some sense of normalcy. And even with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you may still find yourself (understandably) concerned about sending your child back to the classroom, while also looking forward to the return to school.

“It’s truly an individual decision for each parent and child to make,” says Dr. Cummings. “And that decision may depend on a few factors, like where you live, you and your child’s risk for getting COVID-19, the measures being taken at your child’s school and your comfort level with those measures.”

The bottom line

If you have concerns or questions, talk to your child’s pediatrician. “We’re here to share the facts and have these discussions with you,” says Dr. Cummings. “If you don’t have a well visit scheduled, you can use myGeisinger to message your pediatrician, call their office or schedule a telemedicine appointment to discuss your concerns.”

It’s also important to have conversation with your child, see how they’re feeling about returning to school and make sure they understand the guidelines that will be put into place.

No matter where you land on the decision — in-person or virtual learning — you and your child should continue to take precautions like wearing a face mask in public, following physical distancing recommendations and practicing good hand hygiene.

Tips for keeping your kids healthy at school this fall

Back-to-school time is filled with excitement, a few jitters and a chance for your kids to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. It’s also the time of year when their exposure to germs (viruses and bacteria) kicks into high gear, raising their risk for getting sick.

“If you’re sending your child back to the classroom this year, be sure they’re prepared to follow safety guidelines outlined by their school to keep themselves and others healthy,” says Dr. Cummings.

Along with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, follow these additional tips to help keep your kids healthy:

Practice good hand hygiene

Frequent handwashing is one of our best defenses against getting sick — from pink eye to COVID-19. It’s important to teach your kids good hand hygiene habits (here’s a handy guide) and to monitor their handwashing to be sure they’re washing the right way.

“Touching a surface and then touching their face, mouth, nose or eyes is the most common way kids encounter the germs that make them sick,” adds Dr. Cummings. “So, encourage them to wash — wash often and wash well.”

Pack a hand sanitizer in their bag

While washing hands with soap and warm water is the best way to combat the germs that can make us sick, it may not always be possible to hit the sink. For those times, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is a great solution. And be sure your hand sanitizer doesn’t contain methanol.

As always, stick with soap and water if hands are soiled with dirt or other substances.

Cough and sneeze like Dracula

Teach your child to cough and sneeze into their bent elbow instead of their hands. “We often say ‘cough into your chicken wing’,” adds Dr. Cummings. “The position looks a lot like Dracula pulling his cape across his face, which makes it fun and easy to remember, especially with Halloween approaching.”

This practice will keep germs off their hands and makes it less likely that they’ll spread to another child or a surface that everyone touches.

Watch for signs of any illness, including lesser known viruses and infections

Some illnesses aren’t common in adulthood but can run rampant through daycares and elementary schools. Watch out for:

  • Head lice: Lice can cause an itchy scalp, red bumps on the head and neck, irritability, difficulty sleeping and white particles (lice eggs) in the hair.
  • Hand-foot-mouth disease: This condition can cause sores in the mouth and blisters on the hands and feet.
  • Fifth disease: Also called “slapped cheek syndrome,” Fifth disease causes a rash on the cheeks and may be accompanied by a low-grade fever.
  • Pink eye: Pink eye causes the whites of the eyes to become pink or red, often with watery, green or white discharge. The infected eye may be itchy or painful.

“These illnesses can cause a lot of discomfort,” says Dr. Cummings. “Some can be treated at home with over-the-counter treatments, while some require prescriptions.”

If you recognize any of these symptoms, call your pediatrician.

Know when to keep your child home from school

While it’s always a good idea to keep your child home from school if they aren’t feeling well, it’s especially important now. If your child is sick, keeping them home not only allows them to recover, but it also keeps them from spreading germs to others.

As a general rule of thumb, keep them home if they:

  • Run a fever
  • Have a cough
  • Vomit more than once
  • Have frequent bouts of diarrhea (more than 3 loose stools in 24 hours)
  • Complain of joint pain or muscle aches
  • Complain of chills or shaking shivers
  • Have an unexplained rash
  • Are unable to eat and drink normally
  • Are unable to concentrate on schoolwork due to not feeling well

“When in doubt, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and keep your child home,” says Dr. Cummings. “And don’t be afraid to call your pediatrician for advice.”

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