students in face masks

Indiana schools are returning to school, but things are much different than years past. While thoughts of returning to school typically include back to school shopping and what teachers the student has, this year has brought additional thoughts of how to keep students safe as we continue to face COVID-19. Many families worry about how they can best prepare for returning to school and stay healthy. Dr. Cameual Wright, the Medical Director at CareSource, a nonprofit health plan, has a few important tips to share with parents on ways to keep their children safe from COVID-19 when going back to school.

Educate children about masks.

Many schools are requiring students wear masks throughout the school day or during times of close interaction. Parents should be sure to communicate with school officials to understand updated guidelines and current policies. In addition, parents should teach their children how to wear their masks properly. Although it may be difficult to ensure that younger children wear their masks as directed, parents should have an age-appropriate conversation about COVID-19 and why masks are important and why they should follow this and other school rules to prevent infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children over the age of two wear masks. Parents can visit the CDC mask guidance page for the most updated recommendations for wearing masks. 

Encourage proper hygiene.

It is important to teach children proper hygiene at a young age. Parents should prioritize teaching their children about proper handwashing, especially due to the pandemic we are facing. While it is always good practice for children to wash their hands frequently, parents should emphasize the importance of washing their hands as often as possible to avoid transmission of COVID-19. Families should also communicate the importance of covering their mouth with their arm when coughing and sneezing, not touching their face if at all possible, using hand sanitizer when hand washing stations are unavailable and not touching or sharing personal items with other students.

Keep mental health in mind. 

Aside from keeping children safe from an illness like COVID-19, parents should also be checking in on their child's mental health. The CDC noted children and teens are likely to respond stronger to the stress of the pandemic compared to other age groups. If a parent has a child that is scared about returning to school due to COVID-19 or has other fears surrounding the pandemic, parents should have an age-appropriate conversation with their child about COVID-19 including what it is, what it means for them and how to protect themselves. Parents should always be honest about the topic and reassure them that everyone, including doctors, scientists, principals and teachers, have their best interest at hand. 

The situation can be stressful for children, and parents need to be sure that their children are finding a way to enjoy themselves during these times. They should ensure their children are taking time to do things they enjoy and that they are showing their child extra attention and love.

Stay on track with well-child visits and vaccinations.

It is essential that children stay on schedule with their yearly well-child visit. Even though it is a pandemic, it is vital that children continue these visits to preserve their overall health. While in-person opportunities for well-child visits may be limited, CareSource, among many other providers, offers telehealth as a safe option to complete the visit. CareSource has worked alongside health care providers to ensure there are no barriers to access to telehealth. 

As Indiana sees a serious decline in vaccinations in Indiana, it is crucial that parents keep their children up to date on vaccinations. In May alone, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) reported 137,000 fewer doses which equates to a 46.61% decrease. The CDC recommends that children stay on schedule with their vaccines during the pandemic and even shared strategies to get back onto a vaccination schedule on their website. CareSource has partnered with the Indiana Immunization Coalition on their Vaccinate Indiana efforts to encourage and educate on the importance of continuing to get vaccinated even during the pandemic. If a parent has questions about in-person vaccination opportunities, they should consult their care provider.

Take necessary precautions.

The upcoming school year will encourage families to take even more health precautions than what is taken normally. It is good practice to keep your child home from school if they are sick, but it is even more important now. Families should consider the health of the entire household and even consider keeping a child home from school if a family member is sick. 

When talking about health precautions, families also need to consider where the child will feel safest. Many schools are offering the option for students to learn from home, in the classroom or a hybrid of the two. Caregivers should communicate with their child about what they feel most comfortable with and make a decision that supports the child’s overall wellbeing. Parents should work to remove the stigmas and pressures that come with perfect attendance awards and communicate that health is the most important thing. If parents have questions about their options, they should contact their school and discuss how to ensure students are receiving the best education, wherever they decide to learn from.

If a child comes home and is feeling sick or feels that they have been exposed to someone who is sick, caregivers should call their doctor for further consultation. Parents can call into CareSource, our 24-hour Nurse Helpline, to ask questions and get advice on the next steps to take. Information and guidance on COVID-19 and related topics can also be found at coronavirus.in.gov.

Dr. Cameual Wright is CareSource medical director, Indiana market.

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