Tag Archives: back to school

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about how to make returning to school healthier for children and families. The focus was on preventing the spread of COVID through vaccinations and mask use. Unfortunately, schools in our community cannot require children and teachers to wear masks and be vaccinated when eligible, so many schools are already seeing outbreaks leading to quarantines, closure of some schools, and some serious illnesses and deaths. Keeping children and families safe from COVID remains the top priority when it comes to making this school year a healthy one.

But there is more we all should do to stay healthy this year.  Here are a few suggestions to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and families.

 Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least 5 servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

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.

What kids will be missing when they go back to school.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about the experience of heading back to school. But it’s really about what most kids won’t experience when they are in school—any meaningful education about nutrition, activity, and health.

To be sure, the time that students spend learning the math and science, reading and writing, and art and music is time well spent. Unfortunately, though, in most schools, this comes at the expense of health education. In fact, opportunities for children to be active in school, either through formal physical education or more informal play and recess, has declined over the years. Good nutrition isn’t likely to get much classroom time at any level and the food served in most school hardly sends a positive message about healthy eating. These are missed opportunities!

This isn’t new, of course. I have written about the both the importance of physical activity for growth and learning for children (and adults, too) and the impact of these missed opportunities before. And I’m certainly not the only one to take notice. Probably the most widely known advocate in this area is Jamie Oliver, and his efforts made nutrition and health in schools topics for discussion among parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians alike.