By CRISTINA JANNEY
Children can be safe to return to school in the fall, but parents and schools will need to take precautions, a group of doctors from the University Kansas Health Systems said during a press conference Monday.
Not only is going back to school possible, but it is probably in the best interest of the children, the group said.
The team at the University of Kansas Health Systems invited Dr. Angie Myers, division director of Infectious Diseases; Dr. Jennifer Goldman, pediatric infectious diseases, from Children's Mercy Hospital; and Psychologist Danielle Johnson with the University of Kansas Health System, to discuss COVID-19 as children prepare to return to school in the fall.
Doctor: Children less likely to transmit disease than adults
Goldman said children are not being impacted by the virus the same as adults. Children's Mercy has tested more than 7,300 children with only 188 positives and two hospitalizations.
Goldman also cited a study out of South Korea that found children 9 and younger had very low transmission rates of COVID-19 to other people even within their own households.
Even though children are less likely to transmit the disease, Myers said if you have to care for a small child that has COVID-19, you still need to frequently clean high-touch surfaces, wash hands frequently, try to avoid kissing on the mouth or face, and try to avoid eating or drinking after each other. Depending on the age of the child, you may also choose to wear a mask at home.
Children still need hugs when they are sick, but a family may choose to designate one parent as a caregiver for an infected child, the doctors said.
Goldman said schools cover gaps for children, including providing nutrition, socialization and social services. Schools are also mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect.
"We all acknowledge that in-person learning provides opportunities and support that remote learning just can't," Goldman said. "We know all children don't have access to excellent internet and electronics to perform remote learning or potentially the safe environment that is needed to stay at home and learn effectively."
Schools, parents will need to take precautions
Goldman said she did think schools could reopen with in-person learning, but they would have to take significant precautions.
Some of the mitigating factors have been what the doctors have been preaching throughout the pandemic — physical distancing, mask wearing and screening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said mask wearing can occur for children older than 2.
If a child has symptoms, they must not return to school until they can be evaluated for COVID-19, Goldman said. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has many symptoms that are the same as the common cold.
Is your child emotionally ready to go back to school?
Whether a child is psychologically ready to go back to school may depend on several factors, including if your child has a pre-existing condition, the child's age and if they are a worrisome child already, Johnson said.
"We already have some worrisome kids who are already nervous about going back to school," she said.
They are asking questions, such as "What if I get sick?" "What if I get my family sick?" and "What if I can't see my friends?"
"In talking to kiddos, I say there are some things we can't answer because we don't know. We don't have all the answers, but these are the things I am going to do to keep you safe," Johnson said.
Talk to kids about their role in staying safe
Johnson talks to her own children about how she wears a mask and face shield at work to keep herself safe. She said parents who decide to send their children back to school for in-person classes can talk to the children about things they can control to keep themselves safe like wearing masks, washing their hands and sneezing into their elbows.
She lets her youngest son, who is kindergarten, know Mom and Dad will take care of the big stuff and he just needs to concentrate on his role, which is going to school and learning his ABCs.
Johnson echoed some of Goldman's concerns, saying school is important to children's academic, social and emotional development, and that can't be replicated at home.
"By nature and design, having kiddos at school — if they are healthy and they can social distance — is the safest place they can be," she said. "Children's Mercy mentioned safety issues. We have seen the number of mandated [abuse and neglect] reports drop tremendously."
Johnson said children have reported being more sad since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Calls to suicide hotlines have increased, and Johnson said suicide attempts among youth have become more severe.
Many of those suicide survivors she sees in in-patient care are pointing to the impact of COVID-19 on their lives as a contributor to their attempts.
Make mask wearing fun
Goldman said European and Australia schools have reopened and have shown that children can learn positive preventive routines.
She said it is important to set expectations, such as mask wearing, early. Videos are available that encouraged kids to wear masks. She said you can make wearing a masks fun and positive by say it is like wearing a superhero costume.
"Kids are a lot more flexible than adults a lot of the time," she said.
Goldman also encourages teachers to wear masks and try to social distance from students. She said school nurses need to be equipped with full personal protective equipment.
Virus will likely not be contained when schools reopen
One of the news conference listeners noted other countries had better containment of the virus when their children returned to school. She asked the doctors if we should return the school before the U.S. has containment of the virus.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention, said the virus is exploding.
"We are seeing changes every day — new totals of daily deaths, new amounts of total daily cases. ... I don't know we are going to be able to temper down those rates anytime soon," he said.
He encouraged everyone to wear masks and social distance. He said he thought the numbers could decrease, which could be helped if people wear masks, but not to the point officials may want by the start of school.
Goldman said rapid testing will be needed for those children and staff who show symptoms of the illness.
Hawkinson said Quest Diagnostics recently received approval for COVID-19 saliva testing, which should help as large number of students and staff return for classes. The University of Kansas announced it will test all students and staff as they return for fall classes.
Doctor: Asthma, immunity not factor in kids contracting COVID-19
A parent also asked what families should do about medically fragile children.
Myers said the scientific literature indicates children with asthma are not at higher risk than children without asthma in terms of contracting COVID-19. Even children who have had transplants do not seem to have the illness worse than healthy children.
However, factors such as heart disease or obesity can be risk factors for kids just as they are for adults.