ATLANTA - With the beginning of the new school year fast approaching, many Georgia parents are facing a difficult question: is it safe to send their children back to school?
Dr. Tom Steimer, Chief of Pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, says he gets email and phone calls nearly every day, from parents asking whether their students should return to class or continue with remote learning.
Steimer says there's no easy answer that will work for everyone.
Still, for most students, Steimer believes, the benefits of physically getting back to class, outweigh the risks.
"It appears that children are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease from COVID-19," Dr. Steimer says. "And, they're probably less likely to become infected and spread the infection."
On the other hand, if your student or someone in your home has a condition that raises the risk of severe complications from the virus, Steimer says, it may be safer to wait, and continue remote learning.
To reduce crowding in classrooms, many schools will be "cohorting" students or dividing them into small groups that stay together throughout the school day.
"What that means is the same group of kids will likely go to PE and music and spend time in their classroom together," Steimer explains. "Many schools are going to have to plan on having the children eat their lunch in the classroom. So, really that exposure is narrowed from the hundreds of children who may be in the schools to that small group of kids in their classroom."
If a child in the group gets sick, Steimer says, cohorting will help lower the risk of exposure beyond the students in that child's group.
Dr. Steimer says he knows getting younger students to wear a mask will be challenging.
So, he recommends parents have children practice wearing a mask at home, and talk about why schools are taking precautions, and what to expect when they return to school.
"Explain why it's important to wear a mask," Steimer says. "Go through some of the things we talked about, that they can expect at school: that they're going to be asked to wash their hands before and after lunch, to use hand sanitizer."
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If a student tests positive or is exposed to someone with the coronavirus, Dr. Steimer says, schools will need to move quickly to limit the spread of the virus.
"It's not going to be easy, and there is an onus on the parents, too, to report to the school if their child has had a significant exposure," Steimer says. "For most kids, that's going to be a family member who has tested positive for COVID. And, for those children, they should remain home and be watched during that 14-day quarantine."
Dr. Steimer is encouraging parents to get their students vaccinated against the flu as soon as the vaccine ships in late August or early September.
Seasonal influenza symptoms are very similar to coronavirus virus symptoms, he says.
There is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Getting students vaccinated early against seasonal flu will protect children and limit confusion as flu season picks up steam, Steimer says.
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