For the last six months (and counting), parents have been navigating guidelines and safety measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Now, with the new school year, families have new questions and concerns on how to keep kids safe and healthy.

Parents are weighing the different challenges of keeping children home or sending them into the classroom – whether that’s balancing workload with schoolwork; keeping kids healthy or making sure children receive much needed services that schools provide, such as free lunch or speech therapy.

On top of the education and additional support and services children receive at school, it’s also a place for social development. Children form friendships and learn how to navigate relationships. The good news for parents is that there is no wrong answer. There are ways to safely navigate each option – whether it’s sending children to school or keeping them home.

Here, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions our providers are hearing from parents.

How are schools going to keep kids safe?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is sharing useful scientific and medical guidance on how children can return to schools. This includes:

  • Wash hands frequently
  • Wear a mask
  • Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Keep the same group of students together throughout the day (reducing or eliminating switching classes)
  • Stagger arrival and dismissal times
  • Turn desks in the same direction
  • Screen for symptoms of COVID-19, including temperature checks

You can also check with your local school district to learn more about the precautions your child’s school is putting in place.

Kids don’t get that sick from COVID-19. Why is it an issue to send them to school?

COVID-19 isn’t a severe disease in children. The current infection rate is about 6.6%, which is low. The death rate is less than 0.01%. Now, any death from COVID-19 is an absolute tragedy, but what these numbers tell is that, for most children, they won’t get very sick.

The problem is that we aren’t yet sure the role children play in spreading COVID-19. We know that during flu season, children are the main spreaders of flu in families. They pick up the virus and tend to have mild symptoms. But, they spread it to family members who may experience more severe illness or community members with a pre-existing condition that puts them at risk of complications.

When students, teachers, and staff start returning to school, they will be more likely to be exposed to the virus, just because of the number of people. More people will equal more exposure. Students can pick up the virus and bring it home to families. Parents are more likely to develop more serious symptoms than children, especially if they have pre-existing conditions. So are elderly family members – like grandparents.

The CDC guidelines are meant to reduce that risk, but they will be hard to enforce logistically. It will be difficult for teachers to get kids to wear masks and keep them six feet apart. There are a lot of challenges that come with returning to school, but at the same time, school is an important part of a child’s development. This is why communities are working to see if there is a safe way to return students to schools. Ultimately, it may not work, and some schools may close again a few weeks into the school year.

Why does the science and recommendations for COVID-19 keep changing?

 This is a new virus. Scientists, researchers, and physicians are continually learning about COVID-19. It’s important to pay attention to the latest recommendations. They are backed by reliable science. And, keep in mind that the steps for reducing your risk of getting the coronavirus are the same as any other illness:

  • Stay home if you are sick - Keep your distance from other people
  • Wash your hands
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Wear a mask

How can families support children’s mental health during COVID-19?

Have an age-appropriate conversation with your child. Explain why your family is taking the steps that you are or why schools may look a little different this year. You can tell a young student that a germ can make people sick, but if you wear a mask and wash your hands, you can keep your friends, teachers, and family healthy.

It’s important to explain that you’re not just taking these steps to keep yourself healthy, but that the choices children and families make also help keep others safe. Doing good for others helps give adults and children a purpose, which can even help boost your mental health. It makes us feel good to do good, and it helps give us a little bit of control over what seems to be completely out of our control.

Families can also seek out reliable resources to support a child’s mental health. That may include organizations such as UNICEF or the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

What else should I do to help keep my child safe at school?

In addition to explaining why it’s important to follow new school rules, you can take a few other steps for peace of mind. Send kids to school with a water bottle so they don’t have to get up or drink from a shared water fountain. Tuck several masks into backpacks so if they lose one or drop one, they have a clean one to wear. Get a travel size hand sanitizer for your student to keep hands clean if they can’t wash hands at a sink. Little things can help a lot. And, keep your child at home if they are sick.

How can I support my child’s mental and emotional health if they stay home?

Find a “quarantine bubble” – other families and friends that are taking the same steps as your family. This helps your child connect with friends and maintain those friendships that are so important for a child’s physical, mental, and social development. You can also do cohorts with other families opting for virtual learning. Continue virtual playdates or calls with family and friends.

Your pediatrician is also a good source of advice. They can answer specific questions and address concerns you have for your child.