One of the most critical lessons of the pandemic was this: Children are more likely to learn, thrive and develop appropriately when attending school in-person alongside their peers. As classrooms reopen this fall, families can take steps to help keep students healthy.
The basics: sleep, exercise & nutrition
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers recommendations that begin with the basics–ensuring that students get nutritious meals, sufficient sleep and physical activity, all of which are key to academic and social success.
Families are encouraged to schedule visits with the pediatrician for routine check-ups, pre-participation (sports) exams and vaccines, especially with viruses including COVID-19 and the flu in circulation.
Families who receive health insurance coverage through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program should ensure their contact information is up to date with their state Medicaid agency to receive timely updates about their health coverage and avoid gaps in coverage.
Catching up on immunizations is key
"The single most effective way to protect our children before they return to school is to make sure they are up to date on all of their immunizations," said Sonja O'Leary, MD, FAAP, chair of the AAP Council on School Health.
"We've seen a decline in vaccination rates nationally and are concerned about potential outbreaks of life-threatening diseases. A recent case of polio reported in New York reminds us that we cannot let down our guard," Dr. O'Leary said.
"We also know that people vaccinated against viruses such as COVID and influenza are much less likely to endure severe illness or be hospitalized if they do get sick, compared with those who are unvaccinated," she said.
Keeping COVID under control
The AAP recommends COVID vaccination
for everyone 6 months and older. Children should get fully immunized as soon as they are eligible. Keep children and teens home from school if they are sick or show new symptoms, and continue to emphasize handwashing. Although not required in many school districts, indoor masking is still beneficial. Consider masking a child (and family) with well-fitting masks if the child is currently ineligible for COVID-19 vaccine; is unvaccinated; immunocompromised; if a family member is at high risk; or they live in a community with "high" COVID-19 transmission.
Stay tuned in to your child's mental health
Many children and teens have experienced mental health struggles over the past few years. Be on the lookout for any concerning changes in behavior or signs of anxiety or distress. Ask your pediatrician if you are unsure if your child needs help. Schools may also offer sources of mental health support.
"Many children and adolescents have struggled emotionally during the pandemic, and it's important to let them know it's ok to talk about that," Dr. O'Leary said.
If you have a firearm in your home, make sure to lock it up and store the ammunition separately. The increased risk of suicide is particularly striking for younger persons where guns are stored loaded and/or unlocked.
Talk about racism & bullying
Talk with your child about racism and hate. Encourage children to seek help from a trusted adult if they are discriminated against or witness an act of bullying or discrimination against others.
Plan for mindful media use
The change in routine is a good time to
create or update your family media plan so they can balance screen time with sleep, exercise and other healthy activities. Help your children choose high-quality programs or games and help them discern the difference from online sites that promote false information.
Talk with your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns about your child's health as the school year starts.
"We know that children are resilient and can overcome many challenges with the help of trusted adults around them," Dr. O'Leary said. "Your pediatrician is a good place to start."