With children throughout the Rio Grande Valley returning to in-person classroom instruction, local healthcare providers are urging the community to continue to utilize best practices when it comes to safeguarding against COVID-19.
Routines such as frequent hand washing, the use of face coverings when in public, avoiding large indoor gatherings, and following appropriate social distancing guidelines have led to a decline in COVID-related hospitalizations throughout the Valley in recent weeks. However, as some children return to school and flu season approaches, that positive trend could rapidly deteriorate if local residents neglect the proven methods of protecting against COVID-19, local health experts said.
“It’s critical that we continue our COVID prevention measures as kids go back to school because COVID spreads more easily than other cold viruses and influenza,” said Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, family medicine specialist and physician adviser at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville.“A small COVID outbreak can quickly become a large surge of infections. Even though we may feel frustrated by wearing masks or avoiding gatherings, these are the measures that will avoid a repeat of the uncontrolled COVID spread over the summer.”
Zavaleta said that there are simple routines to enact to help protect local households from COVID-19, especially now that more children are venturing outside the home and into classrooms.
“I recommend that all family members get in the habit of washing their hands immediately when they come home, whether from school, work or anywhere,” she said.“It’s also a good idea to have a designated “PPE” area to hang or place masks and face shields that are used outside the home. Observe your kids for any symptoms of illness and use a digital thermometer to check for fever. If anyone in your household is at high-risk, because of age more than 60 or having a high-risk medical condition, consider keeping physical distance within your home or wearing masks inside the home as well.”
Because children, especially those who are younger, may not necessarily understand the importance of the safety measures associated with COVID-19, Zavaleta said parents taking the time to practice routines with children can help kids grasp the concepts of COVID safeguards.
“Parents can provide reassurance to their children by reviewing the safety measures with them. Practice putting their mask on and taking it off, and remind them to keep it covering both mouth and nose. Practice washing their hands for 20 seconds, and practice sitting six feet apart so that they know what it looks like,” she said. “It’s also good to remember that a moment or two with your mask off is unlikely to result in becoming infected with COVID, since the risk of COVID depends on the length of time of exposure and how close you are to the source. Parents can reassure their kids that if their mask slips down for a moment, they don’t need to panic; just reposition their mask and sanitize their hands.”
Sara Robertson, child life specialist with Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen, agreed, adding that children often adapt to changes and challenges quicker than adults once they understand the situation.
“We’re all eager to return to our familiar routines and some sense of normalcy. Kids may be feeling excited about going back to school and being with friends, and we can encourage them to look forward to it, but we do need to have the conversation about staying safe and preventing the spread of germs,” she said. “Simple, clear explanations or reminders with specific instructions are the most effective.”
Robertson suggested that parents focus on the following points to help children understand the importance of protecting themselves:
- Germs are tiny, so we can’t see them. They spread without us even noticing, so we need to be careful.
- We all have the responsibility to protect ourselves and others by doing three things:
- Washing our hands (20 seconds—sing the birthday song to know how long!)
- Wearing our masks and/or face shields when we’re around others
- Keeping social distance (not giving hugs or sitting close to others)
“The great news is, kids adapt easily, and when approached appropriately, they often comply even better than adults,” Robertson said.“In school, kids often talk about being a ‘good citizen’ by looking out for others, picking up trash, and being respectful. This is another opportunity to practice that citizenship.”
In addition to practicing COVID safety in and outside the home, Zavaleta said it is important to remember to take simple steps to protect children against other health issues as well.
“Make sure that your kids are up to date on all their routine vaccines: flu shot, MMR, chicken pox and so on,” she said.“Many children fell behind on vaccinations due to delayed checkups during the initial ‘lockdown,’ so now is the time to get caught up.”
For more information on back to school planning and how to protect children from COVID-19, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/parent-checklist.html.