Pandemic 101: Back-to-school tips from a Morristown pediatrician

Dr. Tyree Winters, a pediatrician, shared back-to-school tips to reduce risks from the coronavirus. Aug. 4, 2020. Screen shot by Marion Filler
By Marion Filler

Schools are scrambling to open in the fall, but will they be safe?

Dr. Tyree Winters, a pediatrician with the Atlantic Health Medical Group, offered some tips for anxious parents this week during a half-hour webcast from Morristown Medical Center.

First, back to basics. Regardless of COVID-19, a back-to-school physical is always a smart move.

“Good health is optimal for learning,” said Winters, acknowledgeing that doctor visits may have been delayed during the pandemic. It’s particularly important for ages 3 to 6 to have a wellness visit.

“We want to think about their weight, their height, make sure we check their visual acuity and hearing,” the pediatrician said. Complications can arise in all age groups from conditions such as asthma and obesity.

While there are lots of unknowns about COVID-19’s effect on children, certain things have become obvious.

According to Winters, the rate of illness in young children is less than in older children. Yet even without symptoms they still are able to transmit the virus. The danger is that they can bring it home and spread it to family members, some of whom could be dangerously vulnerable.

Social distancing in the classroom is vital, and although six feet is optimal, Winters said three feet is beneficial as long as students wear masks.

“The thicker the better,” he said.

Fabric masks are good, but a double- or triple-folded fabric is best. Hand washing with soap and water is most important, but in a pinch, a hand sanitizer should be used on the entire surface of the hand. This should take about 15 to 20 seconds to apply if done properly.

Deciding whether to send kids to school for a full day, keep them at home to learn online, or attempt a hybrid of the two approaches is not an easy choice, especially when the children are kindergarteners.

“I can definitely can see the benefit of the hybrid system for kids to socialize, even if it’s only three or four hours a day,” said Winters.

“However, I also see how much strain that can put on parents and society as a whole. Teachers and kids may be hybrid, but the rest of us are not. I think the most important thing is to realize that one size does not fit all. That’s why it’s so important to have school districts work with families and health care providers to find the best solution.”

What is the best way to handle older children?

“We know that teenagers and young adults love to socialize,” said Winters. He suggested a “trust system” with another family or special group of friends — something like a backyard barbecue.

“All the parameters such as social distancing must be in place,” said Winters, “so try to find the lowest possible risk and still have that socialization that is so important.”

Sending a child off to college in normal times can be stressful, but parents are even more anxious because of the pandemic. Tell your teens you trust them to do the responsible thing, that their actions can affect so many others, and they are not expected to be 100 percent perfect, advised Winters.

“Most teenagers want to feel that sense of trust,” adding that “for the most part, they are way more insightful than you give them credit for.”

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