For nearly two years now, our children have been sequestered at home. With fresh infections having dropped to 1,000 per day across the country, we are now seeing a slow return to normalcy with schools opening physically.
Over the course of two years, it has become more than apparent that virtual schools cannot take the place of in-person teaching. Children need school for more than just their education — school is where our children learn to socialise and gain confidence in their ability to make decisions. While in theory, the return to physical school seems like a no-brainer, it has brought on a fresh wave of concerns about potential exposure to unvaccinated children, especially for those with at-risk family members.
Understandably, parenting in COVID-19 times can frequently be daunting. There is, however, comfort in the fact that over two years we have seen that, by and large, children who contracted Covid-19 have milder symptoms than their adult counterparts and there is less chance of transmission of the virus from children under 10 years of age. Undoubtedly there will be breakthrough infections with the resumption of physical school, but they must be handled skillfully and immediately.
To ensure that children do not contract COVID-19 on their return to school, it is imperative that we adopt a multi-pronged approach. Both students and teachers who are eligible for vaccination must be vaccinated. This must be coupled with the triple pillars of COVID etiquette — masking, hand washing and social distancing as far as viable. While the government has relaxed the mandate on wearing masks in public, most schools still insist that children and teachers wear masks. The face mask is the first line of defence in a virus as communicable as COVID-19. It drastically reduces the risk of transmission, especially for those who meet several people in the day. Appropriate use of face masks whenever in public is especially important for those who may live or interact with those who face a higher risk of infection. In addition to restricting the spread of COVID-19, the use of face masks also reduces the spread of the common flu and other viral infections common to children.
Parents must take care to instruct their children on proper mask etiquette. Children must be taught to wear the mask at all times, the mask should fit well and cover the mouth and nose completely. Children should be explained that they may have mask-free time when they are in recess or having classes outdoors where social distancing can be practised. In addition, they should be strongly discouraged from exchanging masks and should be provided with an extra mask at all times.
These measures must be coupled with schools implementing systems to identify children exhibiting symptoms so they may isolate at home promptly. If a child develops symptoms at school, there has to be a protocol in place for the child to be picked up right away, isolated, and tested. In India the isolation period is now seven days since testing positive, or if exhibiting no fever, for three successive days. Thereafter, no further re-test is required prior to resuming normal day to day activities.
In addition to implementing a protocol for identifying and isolating symptomatic children, schools must regularly disinfect frequently touched surfaces like door knobs, faucets, taps, keyboards, tablets, etc. Social distancing ought to be promoted at all times, especially when children will have their masks off, such as lunch hours. Where possible, 3 ft ought to be maintained between children at lunch hour. It may be a good idea to send packed lunches so as to avoid overcrowding at the lunch line. In a bid to promote social distancing, certain schools have made corridors one way, with separate entrances and exits, ensuring less crowding and mixing.
At home, parents should practice hand washing with their child and emphasise the importance of washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially before eating, and after coughing or sneezing. When hand washing may not be feasible, children should be taught to use an alcohol-based sanitiser that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol. Schools should encourage regular hand washing and hand-hygiene practices like covering their mouths and noses with their elbow and disposing used tissues properly and washing their hands after. These practices will also help keep down other infections like common colds and gastroenteritis. Every time children return after a break in physical school, there will be an increase in these infections for the first couple of months.
It is completely normal for your child to have reservations about going back to school after a two-year long hiatus, and if that is the case, your children will look to you for confidence. Reassure your child and listen to what they have to say. Let your child know it is absolutely okay to feel scared and uncertain about returning. Keep reassuring them that other children will also be feeling the same way and that there will be teachers to look out for them. To acclimatise them, arrange a couple of play dates with a few of their friends before school starts.
If your child is having difficulty in adjusting in school he or she may show some signs or behavioural changes such as:
* sleeping more
* listlessness, disinterest in activities
* reduced appetite
* excessive anger or neediness
* refusing to go to school
If you notice any of the above, keep in touch with the teacher and see how your child is holding up at school. If the problem persists, it might be time to seek professional help.
Parenting is always a rollercoaster ride; however, following the above steps can help most parents to reassure themselves that all measures have been taken to ensure that their child is as safe as possible on their return to school. Lastly, it cannot be stressed enough that parents stay up-to-date with all regular vaccinations to keep their children safe from other infections like typhoid and chickenpox, etc.
(Dr Saroja Balan is consultant neonatologist and paediatrician at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. Her column will appear every fortnight)