As children head back for a fourth school year with COVID-19, many parents are hoping that their kids will be able to enjoy a mostly normal school experience. But with new variants circulating and respiratory virus season on the horizon, many also have concerns and questions about what the new school year will look like.
We sat down with Dr. Manish Sadarangani, the director of the Vaccine Evaluation Center at BC Children's Hospital, pediatrics professor at the UBC Faculty of Medicine and father of three, who shared his perspective and advice for parents as children re-enter the classroom.
You have three kids yourself — how are you feeling about the school year ahead?
I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. Our children had three school years that were dramatically disrupted by COVID-19, and we’re realizing more and more how much of an impact that has on our kids during these critical formative years in their social and emotional development, and the potential for long-term consequences. So, I’m hopeful that we can start to see something resembling normal childhood interactions in the school year to come.
Are you concerned about the new variants and the potential for a fall/winter wave?
Most experts agree that this virus will be living with us for the foreseeable future. We are going to continue seeing waves of different variants, but it’s difficult to predict right now how frequently those waves will come or how severe they will be. As parents and as a society, we need to remain nimble and open to the possibility that the situation could change rather quickly.
Fortunately, we’re now in a very different place than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. Vaccines have provided a high level of population immunity, which means the school year ahead can be very different than those previous.
So, what can parents do?
Vaccination is the safest way to build immunity, and we’re very lucky that anyone who’s six months and older can now be vaccinated in B.C. If your child hasn’t received their vaccine, there’s still time to build a robust immunity for the school year and the best time to go would be as soon as possible. Some children may also be eligible for booster doses and parents can check the Immunize BC website for the latest information.
With higher levels of immunity, do we still need extra precautions in schools?
It’s hard to be prescriptive, but ultimately, it will depend on community transmission and finding the right balance between risks and benefits. There are still some children at high risk and we are also seeing rare cases where children develop severe COVID-19 or multisystem inflammatory syndrome after a COVID-19 infection, which can make them quite sick. But we also have to consider the psychosocial and emotional impact of having restrictions in our schools. It’s a difficult balance and there’s no clear answer that everyone will agree on.
By and large, what’s happening in schools should reflect what’s happening in the community. We have a lot of data, including from studies here in B.C., showing that transmission within schools largely reflects transmission in the community. So, schools aren’t really higher risk environments and the protective measures we take in schools should reflect those we take elsewhere in our lives.
Under what conditions should parents consider masks for their children?
It will vary from family to family. For children who are at an increased risk, it’s best to speak with the healthcare professionals responsible their treatment and care. They can advise if a mask is recommended for different environments and those recommendations may change depending on the circulation of COVID-19 and other viruses.
There may be other times when parents want to take extra precautions to make sure that their kids aren’t going to get sick, whether that’s an upcoming performance, a sports tournament, a family vacation or a visit with an elderly or vulnerable family member. It’s also important to remember that children have their own views and opinions. Kids have to feel comfortable in their environment, and as parents, we need to talk with them and be supportive of the decisions they want to make.
How do you recommend parents talk with their kids about COVID-19 leading up to the school year?
Parents know their kids best, so try to use language they understand. Also recognize that every child is going to be different — some may want a lot of information, while others may want the basics. Try to keep the information at a level the child wants.
Most importantly, keep the conversation going. Check-in with them to see how the school year is going, ask what is happening in the classroom and on the playground, and find out what they’re talking about with their teachers and classmates. There’s probably a lot going on that they’re thinking about, so it’s important to gauge where there are at and how they are doing.
What if my child is feeling anxious?
It’s normal for some children to have some level of stress and anxiety as things change. Some kids may not remember a time when they went to school without wearing a mask, so it comes as a big shock. Really try to re-emphasize for children that just because things are changing, it doesn’t mean they’re any less safe. Make sure they know it’s okay not to have a mask, and on the flip side, that it’s okay if they still want to wear one. We have to respect people’s individual choices and empower our kids to do the same.
Where can I go for more information?
There are a lot of great resources on COVID-19 and schools available from the Government of B.C. and from the BC Centre for Disease Control. It’s also important to remember that things could change depending on the local context in your community, so be sure to stay up-to-date on the latest information from your local health authority, school district and your child’s school.
Story reposted from UBC Faculty of Medicine.