Addressing Back-to-School COVID-19 Concerns

Steve Chapman

As districts in New Hampshire and Vermont prepare to reopen schools for in-person learning this fall, many parents and educators are experiencing feelings of anxiety. This is understandable, as everyone wants to keep both children and teachers safe. 

Reassuring data

We're used to viruses often affecting children more severely than adults, yet it is the opposite with COVID-19; children don't catch the virus at the same rate as adults. Unlike the flu and many of the other respiratory viruses we see in children, if they do contract COVID-19, they don't get as sick and are less likely to spread it to other children and adults.

Data collected by YMCAs providing daycare services to children of essential workers supports these findings. Of 1,000 daycares serving 40,000 children across the U.S., none had to shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak. The transmission and likelihood of catching COVID-19 was extraordinarily low—0.16 percent of children developed infection—and the rate of infection of YMCA childcare providers was also less than their surrounding communities.

We've been very fortunate in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine to experience very low rates of COVID-19 in children. In New Hampshire, only five percent of COVID-19-positive cases have been in children under the age of 18. Only 1.5 percent of them—nine children—required hospitalization. They didn't experience long hospital stays and are all doing fine at home.

Navigating reopening

While some kids do relatively well with remote learning, most learn better in person. The services provided in schools—from speech therapy and counseling to physical activity and reliable meals for families experiencing food insecurity—are very challenging to deliver remotely. The sense of community, of being part of a class and a school, is critical to child development.

A community focus will prove effective as schools to implement COVID-19 safety measures. Communication with parents, students and staff should feature messages like, "We respect each other. I look out for you; you look out for me. This is how we take care of each other," rather than fear-based instructions. Taking temperatures, paying attention to symptoms, staying home when ill, social distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing masks—especially for adults and kids who can—are practices of caring communities.

Ultimately, the guiding principles should be kindness, community and data. We must pay attention to what the data is telling us about regional outbreaks, regional prevalence of COVID-19 and the extent to which the virus affects children.

In the meantime, check in with children in an age-appropriate way about their feelings around returning to school. Start supportive and loving conversations to prepare them for the transition.

For more information, view my recent webinar with Joanne Conroy, MD, CEO and president, Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, on the D-H Facebook page. 

Steven Chapman, MD, is a Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) pediatrician, medical director of the Boyle Community Pediatrics Program and recent president and current Executive Committee member of the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.