Staying healthy when going back to school, part 1

It’s the time of year when summer is winding down and kids are heading back to school. After two years of learning that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, students, and teachers were hoping for a more normal return to school. As we know, all children need to be healthy to learn and grow at school. Staying healthy includes avoiding illness, of course, but it also includes regular physical activity, good nutrition, and getting enough sleep.

When it comes to the health of students, teachers and their families, the biggest concern this year is still the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The predominant virus now is the delta variant, which spreads more readily and tends to lead to more serious infections, including in children. The best way to prevent infection and illness is through vaccinations, masking, and physical distancing.

While vaccinated people can still spread the virus, they are less likely to get seriously ill and require hospitalization. In recent weeks, over 95% of people who have been hospitalized or died due to the delta variant were unvaccinated. This strongly suggests that vaccination can prevent serious illness.

The fact that the delta variant can be easily spread, even by vaccinated people, explains the continued need for masking. The CDC recommends mask use indoors for all people regardless of vaccination status. This is especially, important in schools, since many school-age children who are under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Unfortunately, in our area and others around the country, vaccination rates are relatively low, putting many children and adults at risk. Adding to the problem, in some places mask use cannot be required in schools or is not encouraged among students and teachers. For example, at my kids’ school, parents were told that children who wear masks would be “welcomed” on campus.  

This is far short of the recommendation given by other local school leaders that actively promote vaccinations and mask use for students and staff, despite a prohibition of making these steps requirements for attendance. Already there are some schools that do not require mask use in our area and elsewhere that have had to make changes to their face-to-face teaching plan due to COVID outbreaks at their school.

The first step in making this a healthy return to school by protecting children, teachers, and their families from serious illness is to get vaccinated, wear masks, and physically distance when possible in schools. The COVID vaccinations are safe, effective, and free, so with very few exceptions there is no good reason for everyone not to get vaccinated.

We are all tired of wearing masks, but they are an easy way to allow people to more safely gather indoors whether that is at school, work, or other settings. Physical distancing, while not always easy, is also a good way to limit the spread of COVID and other viruses in crowded environments like classrooms. These same steps allowed many schools to open for in person learning last year and are the key to keeping kids in school this year.

Keeping children safe from COVID to allow them to stay in school is only the first step in a healthy start to the new school year. Next week I will explore how physical activity and exercise, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are essential for good performance at school. The good news is these same steps can help keep everyone healthy and happy this year.

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