Back to School Safety

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed and upended American life. Schools from elementary to higher education switched to online classes in March of 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. Many parents also began to work from home, juggling both childcare and work responsibilities. Fall 2020 may just be the most anticipated school season yet.

As your family prepares to navigate a unique back-to-school return after being out of the classroom for nearly 5 months, what can you do to enhance your child’s school experience — whether learning remotely or in-person — and what can you do to keep your children as safe and healthy as possible? We talked to Children’s pediatricians, Dr. Tina Scott-Mordhorst, and Dr. Brandi Reeve-Iverson, for their guidance and to learn more.

Topic Breakdown

1:42 – Precautions to take for heading back to school
3:48 – Helping your child wear a mask — without complaining
6:56 – Preparing your child for the “new normal” at school
10:00 Getting ready for remote learning
11:49 – Facing the unknown
13:16 – Ensuring that your child gets physical activity during remote learning
18:15 – Symptom checks before school
19:53 – Children’s is here for parents
21:08 – More tips and tricks for getting ready for the school year


Transcript

Here at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, it’s all kids — all day, every day. Our pediatric experts are here to answer your questions and weigh in on hot topics, helping you keep your child healthy, safe, and strong. We’re here for you. Listen in.

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed and upended American life. Schools from elementary to higher education switched to online classes in March of 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. Many parents also began to work from home, juggling both childcare and work responsibilities. Fall 2020 may just be the most anticipated school season yet.

As your family prepares to navigate a unique back-to-school return after being out of the classroom for nearly 5 months, what can you do to enhance your child’s school experience — whether learning remotely or in-person — and what can you do to keep your children as safe and healthy as possible? We talked to Children’s pediatricians, Dr. Tina Scott-Mordhorst, and Dr. Brandi Reeve-Iverson, for their guidance and to learn more.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Hi, I’m Dr. Brandi Reeve-Iverson from Children’s Physicians, Bellevue.

Dr. Scott-MordhorstDr. Scott-Mordhorst: And I’m Dr. Tina Scott-Mordhorst from Children’s Physicians in Plattsmouth. I think today we’re just going to talk a little bit about how things are going to look as we get ready to get back to school, and hopefully address some concerns and make people feel a little bit better about what’s happening.

Precautions to take for heading back to school

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is, “What should you be doing now to ensure that your kiddo is ready to head back to school this fall, and what precautions should your family be taking to prepare?”

At our house — so I have two little ones who are heading back to elementary school this week — so at our house, I’m kind of mentally preparing my kids for what school’s going to look like this year, because it’s going to look quite different from what it looked like last year. So in their circumstances — they’re going to be wearing masks, which I think is the big point that we’re going to touch on today. And they’re going to be restricted in what activities they can do, their outside time, how lunch is going to be served, how they’re going to be taking mask breaks, how they’re going to be hand sanitizing. And it’s just a lot for them to take in. Especially because I’ll have a kindergartner and a second grader, so I have a kid who’s never been to school and a kid who is very used to school at this point, and it’s going to go quite differently.

And so the best thing I found, as both a mom and a pediatrician, that I can do for my families and my own kids, is to kind of try to coach them through what it’s gonna look like. Because I think our kids do better when they’re prepared. Of course, not wholeheartedly, because I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but to also let them know that change is okay. So we’re doing this for a reason.

And then if I don’t get upset about it or overly anxious about it, then my kids tend to follow suit. And so that’s what I’ve tried to talk with a lot of my families about is that, you know, changes may come soon after school starts. Unfortunately — so school, we may start in the building, and then we may unfortunately have to go remote and that’s okay, because there’s a good reason why we’re doing it.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Well, and don’t you think…my kids are older. But don’t you think just kind of being hopeful and optimistic is an important thing to do with kids right now, because they are faced with so much uncertainty? And parents are nervous, as it is, but I think that we have to kind of put our best foot forward for kids right now and just be the good cheerleaders that we always are and that we can be — and you and I as pediatricians, and as mothers as well.

Helping your child wear a mask — without complaining

So much of what we do is reassurance and encouragement. And that goes true, or holds true, with this, and even the things that, you know…maybe you and I have gotten used to wearing masks all day every day, are a little unusual for kids. But kids are so darn resilient and if we just give them a mask they like, and make it be a character they love, or something that Grandma has made, or something a friend has made —

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Or something they’ve decorated themselves —

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: — yes, something they’ve decorated themselves. And I have found in clinic that these kids are so proud of the masks they wear. If you say encouraging words to them and really pump them up for their mask and how cool it is —

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: — and how they’re wearing it correctly.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Right.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: So I think that’s another thing I point out, is that they have such cool designs, and, “you’re covering up your nose and you’re not touching your face — these are all great things.”

And really, again, modeling that good behavior to them. Wearing our masks ourselves. Because it is, unfortunately, our new normal.

I think it’s really important — like you talked about, finding the right mask for them. My kids have tried out several masks, and some of which they’re constantly touching their face, so I have to remind them, “Okay, like maybe this isn’t the right mask for you.” Or it doesn’t fit tightly in their face, so they’re still getting a lot of air in from the sides. And so finding whatever mask that works for your kiddos, that they’re going to leave on and leave alone. And then, I know we’ll come to this later, but having them practice with the mask and not just springing it on them the first day they go to school.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: And even just that — I think that’s fair to even address right now, because that is a concern that I know you’re hearing from parents, and I’m hearing as well. You know, “How am I going to get my kid to wear this mask all day?” and I’ve actually asked — again, my kids are older, they’re adults, and they just wear masks. But I’ve asked parents for ideas and thoughts about what they’ve done. And it’s things like, they earn bonus screen time if they wear their mask while they’re playing their video games or watching their programs.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Right.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: I think we just need to give parents ideas that maybe they haven’t thought of before.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: And our kids don’t leave the house a whole lot, but when we do go out in public, they have their mask on. They put it on before we leave the car, we talk about. Again, I reiterate why it’s important that we’re doing this. And now we’re seeing more and more people when we do go out that are wearing masks. So reiterate why we’re doing what we’re doing, and that we’re not the only ones doing it. Everybody’s doing it. Or if they’re not, they should be, to try to keep — we’re keeping ourselves safe with our mask and we’re trying to keep them safe as well. And even my little ones understand that.

And so, again, it’s just — I saw the tip online recently about wearing masks during screen time, and I think that’s brilliant, because a lot of kids value their screen time. Some a little too much. But that’s…irregardless. If you have to wear your mask to practice, that’s a good time to do it. Because, you know, when they’re outside, running and playing, that might not be the most ideal time. But if a lot of them are going to be remotely learning, practicing wearing their masks when they’re doing their screen time may be appropriate, I think.

Preparing your child for the “new normal” at school

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think — and you touched really quick even on the handwashing and antibacterials soaps, gels — all of those things that they’re going to see in the classroom, which I think most of them have seen before —

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Oh, absolutely.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: May be a little more prevalent. And I think, also just, advising them and teaching them how to keep their distance from their friends. You’ve got those — they’re going to be so, so excited to see their friends on that first day of school.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Oh gosh, yes.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Like over the moon, right? And so, the other conversation as pediatricians and parents that we have with children is, “Yes, you’re going to be excited to see your friend, but there’s a positive way to express that right now.”

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Right, like maybe, not hugging and touching, and touching all of their school supplies, and keeping your own school supplies to yourselves, those kinds of things. And respecting each other’s distance. And again, with the teacher — I have younger kids, they like to give their teachers hugs,and that’s a big part of school, that social dynamic. So I think, again, instructing our kids that, “This year’s maybe not the year that we hold hands with our best friend or we give the hugs the first time we see them” because you’re absolutely right — our kids have missed their friends immensely. And there’s some friends we haven’t seen in 6+ months, because Zoom is just not the same as seeing your friend in person.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: It’s not, it’s not the same. As adults, we kind of crave that. And they just don’t know. There’s fun little impulse control things they do sometimes. We have to teach them to put the brakes on. And you’re right, it’s not even their friends, it’s their teachers. These kids — I’m so impressed by how much they’ve missed their teachers.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Oh, yeah.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: And want to get back to school to see their teachers. So I think — just, those behaviors, we kind of need to reinforce at home, as well.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Oh, absolutely.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: I also — I love the point you made about kids caring, because they do care. And I think if we lead with that with kids — kids are just compassionate and kind from the get-go. They want to please people, they want to please their friends, they want to please adults. And if we set expectations for them, I think they can do these things.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Absolutely.

And they’re resilient. So I think that really, regardless of what their school year looks like this year — whether it’s completely remote or a combination blended model or all in school — I think, although it may be a little difficult in the beginning, I think our kids will get used to it. Kind of like in the beginning, we were all disappointed when we didn’t go back to school from spring break. And we all kind of settled into our new normal once each school district told us how we needed to school our kiddos or what we were going to do, and our kids went with it. It was kind of the new normal, and I think that’s what this year is going to bring, as well.

Getting ready for remote learning

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: So, as far as the people that are choosing remote learning — I know that I have been telling families to make a schedule. I think it’s even okay to post a schedule somewhere at home, and recognize that you have kids that are going to need to take breaks during the day, and it has to be appropriate for their age. Maybe high schoolers are a little more — you would hope — self-directed than little kids. But — what else have you been telling parents?

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: I guess it kind of depends on the district, because we haven’t gotten a lot of information about what these remote programs are going to look like. So if they’re expecting them to be in front of that computer and they’re going to be accountable, we’re going to have to find ways that they can do that. So maybe it’s that they are sitting on an exercise ball so they can still move a little bit. And we’re going to have to set up — you know, if my kiddos were doing all remote learning, I think the learning would probably be not done when they’re laying in bed, kind of thing. I think you need to set the expectation that, “We’re going to be sitting at the table or at the counter” and that, “This is what the learning hours are.” Kids are creatures of habit, so, like you said, when you set up a schedule, I think they will learn much better that way.

I found it hard as a parent, as a working parent, coming home and trying to teach in the evening time, just was not working. Because my daughter was not, at that point, willing to learn. And she would do it because she knew she had to do it, but it wasn’t an ideal time. So having our kids learn during the daytime hours, if possible.

And again, as many breaks as their program allows for, depending on what their school district is doing. And understanding that the teachers that — at least in my childrens’ district — the teachers that are doing the remote learning are not necessarily the teachers that are in the classroom. So maybe a teacher that they’re not at all familiar with or have never seen before. But that’s okay. That’s kind of going to be their person for the year.

Facing the unknown

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: It is. And back to the flexibility piece, that we need to kind of as parents prepare them for and model for them. Because you’re right, when you said a few minutes ago, what it looks like a week from now isn’t necessarily what it will look like two weeks from now. And they may start in school and they may have to come home, and we have to help them navigate that potential disappointment. And I think we have to just keep talking to them at an age-appropriate level and let them feel all the feels they have, and support them through some of this stuff.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Right. And I know it’s hard for us sometimes, even as a parent — because we don’t have all the answers. We don’t — we are not happy either that they’re not able to go to school, and learn and be with their friends, but I do think our kids feed off of us, too. So if we can stay positive about it, they will, as well. But if we’re really down about it and just completely upset that it’s happening, I think they’ll have a rougher time, honestly, because they’re like, “Well, my mom’s really upset about this, so I’m going to be really upset about this. So this must be a bad thing.”

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Yep, exactly. You’re right. It’s so hard because we don’t know even just what to expect and what to do, but I think that we, again, just have to put our best foot forward, and be hopeful and optimistic with our kids so that they feel settled. This is very stressful for us and they feel stress, as well, and I think we have to validate that and support them.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Right.

Ensuring that your child gets physical activity during remote learning

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Okay, so you mentioned the schedule thing, and I guess I keep going back to you because you have kids in school. Okay, the activity piece. So I have a good friend that when school ended had to figure out what to do with her preteen. And she literally did come up with a schedule every day and she put some form of physical activity in there in two small chunks. Because you know at the time it was March, we didn’t have the nice weather that we have now. And we may be looking at that again. What ideas have you gotten from people and come up with?

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: I’m sure you’ve run into this well, but I’ve seen a lot of kids with a significant amount of weight gain since being home since school let out. Because when they’re bored they want a snack. We all do, that’s kind of human nature. So, making sure — like, my kids are outside the majority of the time. I sometimes have to drag them inside because they want to spend so much time outside playing. So that, in my household in particular, doesn’t seem to be a problem. But it will be when the weather changes. Because right now we’re riding bikes, we’re riding scooters, we’re out playing, we’re hitting the baseball. And part of that is because we want them to be outside, so we make an effort to make sure that they’re out there, and I think that that parent involvement is a big piece of why our kids are out there so much. And I think that not a lot of parents have the ability to, or the space, to do that.

And so you just have to get creative. You know, we’re all on the internet a majority of the time. There’s a thousand different things you can learn to do around your house, whether that’s building an obstacle course or doing a dance video that you project onto the TV.

For instance, we don’t have a finished basement, we can do whatever we want to down there. They can jump over things, they can jump rope, they can even ride their bikes down there if they want to. You can do the same thing in your garage if you just pull your cars out. They can do whatever they want to out there when the weather gets cold. And honestly, my kids don’t seem to care about cold weather.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: I know, I was just going to say, I care more than kids do. Even my adult children still love being out in the cold, and I’m like, “You people are nuts.”

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: But honestly, I think — my age group of kids isn’t as difficult to get outside as our tweens and teens are, because it’s just not cool anymore to ride your bike, or scooter, obviously, and so those are the groups that I’m particularly worried about at the moment, and who are just doing remote learning. Because then it’s all screen time, all the time.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Well, and some of the districts are — if you don’t go in person, you’re not participating in activities.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: No sports, right.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Some districts are allowing that. So every school district is approaching it a little bit differently, and I agree. That age group is hard because they would be just as inclined to, just, be on their phones or whatever device they’re going to use.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: So I think as parents, we really have to — you know, maybe not send them to the gym, because I’m not sure that’s the right idea either — but do keep them active. Because they also — I see them, their BMI’s creeping up and their weight’s creeping up because they’re not — they’re kind of sedentary at this point.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: But also, the adults are, too.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Yeah. Right.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: So…I mean, get out with your kids. Participate or be active with them, because I think adults are more sedentary than they had been.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: And we all know that we are more apt to move and exercise and make healthy food choices if we do it as a family than if we try to single out one person to do it. Because that usually never works.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: I have to agree. And I think that especially when you’re talking about kids that really, really want to get back into their dance, their cheer — we’re going to have to, well, parents are going to have to encourage them, be out with them, come up with good ideas for them. Because if things do go backwards and they miss those opportunities, they’re going to miss a really, really, really important part of, potentially, their high school career.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Right. Well and the other thing is, it doesn’t have to be us telling them. You can come up with what you think will work. It can be a collaborative effort. It doesn’t have to be like, “You’re going to do 100 pushups at 5:00 every day.” We know that’s not going to work.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: That would never work with my kids.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: No, that’s not going to work. So we want it to be a collaborative effort, not just, “This is what you’re going to do.” Or, as we said, doing it with them, because I really think it’s important to get active.

And I think the best part that’s come out of this whole thing is that more families have spent more time together than they’ve probably spent in the previous years because we were all forced to be together. Eating together, talking about what’s going on. And I think they can only — that’s a good thing if that continues.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: I think you’re exactly right.

Symptom checks before school

What about — what have you heard, particularly with your experience in your school district — how are they going to symptom-check for you guys?

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Most school districts are doing a self checklist. It’s going to be an app, I believe.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Children’s has that. Dr McCulloh came up with that.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Student Symptom Checker app, I think is what — I’m pretty sure our district is going to use.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: It’s being built and it’s going to be available. And I do know that there are school districts that are actually going to use that app. The app, as I understand it, is something that parents can use, something that folks in school can use. I think the plan is to have it available in the next couple of weeks. So hopefully shortly after school starts.

And again, that’s just available — there’s a lot of other resources for that matter, that are going to be available on the Children’s website. Not only for parents, but to school nurses, school administrators, teachers. Because they all have questions about — again, adults have as many questions and concerns about this as kids do. It does cause some anxiety.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: And then we as parents are just being held responsible and, you know, — same as when we come into our clinics and we’re doing our screening, that we’re being honest and not sending our sick kids to school. I think that’s a good check for every morning of, “Do we have these symptoms? Should we really be — or is it just allergies?” Because that’s what it seems to get blamed a lot on. I think that, you know, we’ve all been there, like, “Oh my gosh, I have to be at work in 30 minutes, is this really — are you going to be able to go or are you not going to be able to go?”

Children’s is here for parents

And we also still have our COVID hotline that’s available to families that they can call if they’re just not sure. “We’ve had an exposure, should we keep them home, should we not keep them home, what do we do with them? We were around such and such, and then now they’re sick, so what do we do with that?” And we’ve had that in place for several months, so that’s an option for families, too. They’re not in it alone, we’re always here to help and answer questions.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: And as you said, and I know you guys are available always to your parents and your families and your kids, as we are. I think if there’s ever a parent or a family member that is concerned or questioning symptoms, they can call the office. They can talk to us, they can talk to our nurses. We’re happy to communicate with them. I tell folks all the time, “if you have a question, call your pediatrician. Call your family physician. Because that’s what we’re here for. That’s what we do.”

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Absolutely. And there’s no dumb questions. People are always afraid they’re going to ask us some question and we’re going to think the worst of them. And I can always tell them, “We’ve heard it before and we’ll hear it again, and we’ll be happy to answer it every time.” So they can call us any time they need something.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Agreed, agreed. Do you have any — I mean, you’re the one with the small kids. Any other tidbits?

More tips and tricks for getting ready for the school year

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: I don’t think so. I’m just getting them mentally prepared to start school. So getting on a good sleep schedule. We’ve got backpacks ready, we’ve got hand sanitizer on the backpack and some to take to school. We’ve got their mask.

I actually came up with — I saw somebody recently who was wearing a lanyard that attached to the mask hook for the ear, because then the kiddos don’t have to lay them down on their desk. I have stolen that tip for my kids. They both have lanyards. And I also put an extra mask in their spare clothes bag. Just in case. You know, things happen, they’re little, they drop it in the toilet…who knows? So they have an extra mask just in case just so that I don’t have to make that trip to school to take them an extra one, which is also probably a very good idea.

But we’re just getting prepared for, “This is what school’s going to look like, this is what lunch is going to look like. You’re not going to go to the cafeteria, they’re going to bring it to you. But it’s still going to be fine.” And just kind of a lot of the stuff we talked about. Trying to get them ready for that school is, well, for one his new normal, and for the other, is going to be her new normal even though she’s used to it looking a different way.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Okay, well I’m going to take your lanyard idea, because that’s — I love that.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Some of my patients taught me that. Because they showed up and I’m like, this is brilliant, I’m stealing this.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: It is, it is! Because you would hate to have to leave work. Because I’m sure schools will provide some, but you’d hate to leave for that.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Absolutely.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: Awesome. I think that’s great and I appreciate your time and this has been kind of fun.

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: Yes, it has. Thanks for listening to us. And thanks for chatting with me, Tina.

Dr. Scott-Mordhorst: It was good to see you!

Dr. Reeve-Iverson: You too.

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