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LVHN Health Tips: Back to school during the pandemic

Going back to school can be a little scary. Sure it’s exciting and fun to see friends and be another grade older, but it’s also stressful. Hence those nightmares as an adult of being halfway through the school year and realizing you’ve missed one of your classes for months.

Several experts from Lehigh Valley Health Network recently served as panelists in a virtual information session for parents held recently titled “Back-to-School Safety: Resiliency and Kids.” It’s part of the “Because They’re Kids” series.

The panelists included: Dr. J. Nathan Hagstrom, chief of the Department of Pediatrics at LVHN; Dr. Hatim Omar, chief of adolescent medicine at LVHN Works; Dr. Sanjeev Vasishtha, a pediatrician with Lehigh Valley Physician Group Pediatrics; and Thespina Godshalk, clinical director of school-based behavioral health at LVHN. They answered parents’ questions about ways to help children and adolescents cope with stress due to COVID-19.

The questions ranged from the delta variant and the vaccine to mask wearing and mental health.

Q: Are you more concerned with kids getting sick now with the delta variant than you were with the original virus?

A: Hagstrom said the delta variant is more infectious and spreads more easily, so more children are getting sick but they are not getting sicker overall. There are more children being hospitalized than before, but that is because there are more children getting sick.

Q: What should a parent say when their child is afraid they might bring the virus home?

A: An adolescent boy said he is afraid that he will bring COVID-19 home to his parent who has cancer.

Omar said it is a legitimate concern.

“Applaud their ability to understand and go over with them the precautions they can take,” he said. “Wearing masks, getting vaccinated as soon as they are able. That will be extremely important for these kids to feel they are not endangering their parents.”

Q: What do you say to teenagers who are concerned about getting the vaccine?

A: Omar said it is important to give them honest, accurate information. Go to the websites for the American Association of Pediatrics, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or ask a pediatrician to answer their questions.

“Those are really important places where you can find accurate information to compare it to the rumors that you are hearing, because it is scary,” Omar said.

“No question is silly,” Vasishtha said.

Hagstrom said some of the lies and misinformation is being put out deliberately.

“I would just try to recognize that and help your child to recognize it and let it go. If they are confronted, then use the facts, use the information. Don’t get into a heated argument, but feel confident in being able to provide what you know to be the truth,” he said. “It’s certainly your right to give the right information and then walk away.”

Q: What should a child do who wants to wear a mask but is afraid of getting picked on?

A: Omar said it is possible some people might say something, but as long as the child is getting support and encouragement from his or her parents and the school, then everything will be fine. He said he hopes the principals of the schools will make it clear in an announcement that students who want to wear a mask are encouraged to do so.

“If you think that you are not hurting anyone, then it’s OK to do what you think is right for you. I know it’s easier said than done, but it is better for you to protect yourself than worry about somebody making comments,” he said.

Hagstrom applauded the middle school student who said she wants to wear a mask at school. He said she is an example of the seven C’s of resiliency - competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.

He said her decision shows competence in that she recognizes that masking is a way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her actions show confidence in herself, and character to do something that can help others.

Hagstrom recommended that she make connections with other students who also want to wear a mask. The can support one another. And focusing on the positive can also help them to cope with any difficulties. Likewise, be creative and innovative, he said. Make the masks a fashion statement.

“She’s in control, this is her decision and that is a lovely thing,” he said.

Behavioral health specialist Thespina Godshalk suggested that parents do a role play with their children. Talk about what could be said, and help your children know what to say in response.

Q: Should children wear a N95 or KN95 mask?

A: Hagstrom said a cloth mask would suffice. Just make sure it is well-fitting. The N95 masks are well-fitting, but they also fit tighter, which makes some people feel anxious.

Q: Should we be concerned about CO2 in the mask?

A: Studies have looked for a buildup of End-tidal CO2 in N95 masks, Hagstrom said. End-tidal CO2 is how much CO2 is being breathed out.

“It didn’t show any change,” he said.

Hagstrom said some other studies have found trace amounts of CO2 in the masks, but it isn’t enough to cause illness.

He does think it is important for teachers to give students frequent mask breaks, and going without a mask outside would be fine.

Q: Should the mask come off in the bathroom?

A: Vasishtha said masks should remain on in the bathroom, just make sure to wash the hands and maintain social distancing. Once the child comes home from school, the mask should go in the laundry. Children should have a fresh, clean mask for each day of school.

Q: Do we need to worry about cloth breakdown in cloth masks?

A: Hagstrom said cloth masks will get worn out with frequent washing. When they get too worn, replace them with new ones.

Vasishtha said schools should also make sure to have spare masks in case a child forgets their mask or it falls on the ground.

Some other tips that were suggested were to have the mask on a lanyard to prevent it from falling on the ground. Bring a sandwich bag to put the mask in during mask breaks.

Q: In what ways can parents encourage their children during the pandemic and help them with their mental health?

A: “Instilling hope is important,” Godshalk said.

Some coping strategies include putting your head down on the desk, taking a couple deep breaths, taking a walk, using the calming corners or peace corners in the classroom, and taking extra time for work, she said. Use open-ended questions such as “tell me one good thing about your day” to get them talking, and listen.

Vasishtha said talk to them, reassure them, give them a hug, and take a time out from television, cellphones and video games to do something together. He also suggested doing a gratitude journal to help stay positive, or try an app such as 10% Happier or Headspace.

Parents need to be their children’s mentors, their support system, he said.

“Always, whatever they go through, make sure you end the conversation with, no matter what you will be fine. You will be OK. I’m there for you,” he said, and their doctor, teachers and other family members are there for them, too.

Being back in the classroom can be both exciting and scary for students, especially with new health measures. METROGRAPHICS
Dr. J. Nathan Hagstrom
Dr. Hatim Omar
Dr. Sanjeev Vasishtha
Thespina Godshalk