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CHOP doctors share tips for how to go back to school safely

How will I get my kid to keep a mask on all day? How can I be sure they’re safe at school? What’s the best way to make at-home learning feel normal?

Students at Canyon View Elementary in Cottonwood Heights line up on the playground as they go back to school for the first day of classes for the Canyons School District on Monday,.
Students at Canyon View Elementary in Cottonwood Heights line up on the playground as they go back to school for the first day of classes for the Canyons School District on Monday,.Read moreFrancisco Kjolseth / AP

Whether your child is heading back to school in-person or you’re preparing to kick off the school year at home, this year’s back-to-school season brings with it many new questions and challenges for parents: How will I get my kids to keep a mask on all day? How can I be sure they’re safe at school? What’s the best way to make at-home learning feel normal?

On Tuesday, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia brought together two of its experts to field some of the questions parents are grappling with as they decide what is best for their child. Susan Coffin, an attending physician with CHOP’s division of infectious diseases, and Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at CHOP Primary Care South Philadelphia, shared advice for how parents can navigate the new school year.

Choosing between in-person or virtual school is a personal decision

Evaluate your school’s reopening plan to make sure it’s following safety guidelines. Consider whether you trust the school to reliably implement the plan administration has developed and adjust it as necessary during the school year.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned about COVID, it’s that things change quickly,” and schools must be able to adapt to changes, Lockwood said.

Think, too, about whether your family can commit to following the school’s safety protocol, including keeping kids home when they are sick and getting required immunizations.

You should also consider whether your children’s social and emotional needs may be best met with in-person instruction, or whether they will learn effectively at home.

» READ MORE: For students with autism and severe disabilities, the pandemic is a disaster. What comes next?

Teach children safety rules before returning to school in-person

Before sending kids off to school, parents should talk to them about the importance of maintaining the new safety rules they adopted over the summer — such as washing their hands frequently, wearing a mask, and social distancing from others — when they go back to the classroom.

The best way to teach a child to wear a mask is to set a good example — wear your own mask when out in public and don’t complain. Let your child choose a mask and practice wearing it at home, for instance while watching a favorite television show.

Pick a good mask

Fabric masks have become popular among families because they come in so many fun patterns. Make sure you choose a mask that has at least two layers of fabric, with a snug fit across the bridge of your nose, across your cheeks and around your jawline (or under your chin).

Avoid masks that fit too loosely, as well as those with an exhalation valve. Lockwood and Coffin also advised against using bandannas or neck gaiters, both of which can allow air to flow through the bottom.

Get updated on immunizations

Many children may have missed routine checkups and immunizations because their pediatrician’s office was closed or limited to urgent cases during the last several months, but it’s important to get up-to-date as soon as possible. That includes flu shots for the entire family.

“We don’t want the [diseases] we can protect ourselves against, like measles, to become another thing we’re up against,” Lockwood said. “One pandemic at a time is enough.”

» READ MORE: Philly pediatricians: Let’s not forget the diseases we can vaccinate against

Take symptoms seriously

If your child starts to feel sick or experiences flulike symptoms, call your family doctor rather than rushing to the urgent care clinic, where you may risk exposure. Your child’s doctor can help determine what type of treatment is necessary by discussing symptoms and whether there is a chance the child was exposed to COVID-19.

“We don’t have a crisp list, ‘If you have these five symptoms proceed as if you have a cold, and if you have these symptoms proceed as if you have COVID,’” Coffin said. “Context is everything.”

Expect to keep children home if they are sick. Children who test positive for the coronavirus will need to stay home for at least 10 days from when their symptoms started, and should not return to school until they have been without a fever for 24 hours and their symptoms are improving.

Establish a routine for virtual learning

Families that opt for virtual learning should try to establish a schedule that resembles an average school day: Wake up, get dressed, and eat breakfast at the same time every day. Dedicate a space in your home for school or use headphones to keep kids focused. Making sure your at-home school schedule includes regular breaks, including lunch and outdoor playtime, will help kids burn off energy and stay focused on their lessons.

Set group rules for learning pods

Families that don’t want to send their children back to school may be considering a learning pod, in which a few families pool resources to create a mini-classroom of sorts outside of school. Parents may share the responsibility of leading a virtual class for a small group of children or hire a tutor.

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Families considering this option should make sure all members of the pod agree to safety protocols in advance. Pods should follow many of the same guidelines as schools: mandatory masks, temperature screening, staying home when sick, and protocols for social distancing when away from the pod.