With the school year approaching, Atlanta Parent talked to Dr. Andi Shane, a mother and a pediatric infectious diseases expert at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University. She answered our questions on how to handle our new normal with online and in-person school, and how you can enjoy the last few weeks of summer in a safe manner.

What is your advice to parents who choose to send their kids back to a physical school vs. parents who choose online schooling or homeschooling?

Andi Shane

The infectious disease community would recommend choosing one or the other. If your children are going back to school, we want to keep all the same children together as much as possible. That way, there’s less chance of transmission. When you mix groups, transmission is more likely to occur. Try to commit to a decision, which seems very challenging for a parent to do now, but it makes the most sense. Whatever is chosen, it should be something parents can adhere to most of the time.

Some schools are doing half-days or every other day, which could be more difficult. When children are not in school, they may be mixing with other peers outside of school, with the potential for transmission. When they’re engaged in school-related activities, there’s a structure for what children have to do every day and that is more likely to keep infections down. When there’s free or unsupervised time, that makes it more challenging. If they choose online, that choice should be respected, and they should maintain it throughout the school term, for all the reasons we have talked about. When the child goes outside of the home or interacts with other children, make sure they’re masking and social distancing, and try to keep the same group of children the child socializes with together.

How can parents distinguish between COVID-19 and common colds?

Be attuned to your children’s symptoms. It can be hard to know what is a regular cold and what might be more involved than that. Use symptoms to decide whether or not to keep the kids at home. If the child has a temperature or fever, keep them at home. Have them remain at home for 24 hours to see if symptoms progress. If a child has had contact with someone with known or suspected COVID-19, they should follow public health guidance and remain isolated at home. They might not have the COVID-19 infection; we’re coming up on the respiratory virus season, and they could have influenza, cold viruses, other viruses. A symptom-based approach is the optimal way to determine the child’s illness.

Any other health tips?

As we’re entering the respiratory virus season, it is very, very important for parents
to make sure that they and their children receive their flu vaccines as soon as it becomes available. It’s not perfect, but it does the best it can at preventing and decreasing severity, hospitalizations and death. It’s something parents can actively do to protect children and themselves. Make sure children are up to date on other vaccines, and get up to date before they go back to school. Whether or not they go back to school, they’re going to interact with other people, and vaccinations help prevent  other infections.

Many parents feel overwhelmed at their inability to control much during the COVID-19 pandemic, but hand hygiene, masks, social distancing and immunizations are things you can actively do to prevent diseases.

What would you tell parents who are trying to determine if it really is safe for them to go out and about, even with the new protocols in place?

Attractions have done a nice job adhering to guidance from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health. At most places, you have to make an appointment or sign up, they’re limiting the number of people, and children older than age 2 wear a mask. Outdoor attractions are a little different – there’s less chance of transfer.

Are playgrounds, pools, splash pads and waterparks safe?

In those situations, there’s not normally a ticket or reservation. Parents have to use
their own judgement. The recommendation is to limit gatherings to less than 10 people, which is a good marker for families to use. Assess how crowded a playground is, and if it gets more crowded, remove the child. Use appropriate hand hygiene before and after. Children can adhere to guidelines differently. If they’re not able to mask or not able to follow directions, these attractions may not be a good idea at this time; consider other locations.

What advice do you have for a summer vacation?

In general, driving is less likely to bring people together with unknown people. It’s a safer way of getting from location to location. If you stop at a rest stop or a restaurant, hand hygiene, social distancing and masks are necessary.

Try to avoid large crowds, so parents can control who they and their children interact with. It’s really important to bring down the amount of activities a child will participate in. This guidance goes to parents, too. Parents socialize at night after the kids have gone to bed, and being in public places, bars or venues with large numbers of people who can’t social distance is more likely to cause transmission. Being with the same group of people in an uncrowded environment is the best way to think about a family vacation.

How should children properly wear a mask?

Use cloth face masks, and I encourage families to have multiple masks. Washing once a day is reasonable. If it gets soiled, wet or comes into contact with the secretions of someone else, you should replace the mask at that time, so it might be a good idea for parents to have several on them. It has to cover both the nose and the mouth at the same time. We’re seeing a lot of people who are only covering their mouth, but these are the two parts of the face you want to cover. Make sure it fits well, and you want kids to be comfortable in it. They may need to wear it inside the home to get used to what it feels like. Remind them not to touch the mask. Practice hand hygiene before and after taking the mask off or replacing it. If kids are at an appropriate age, make it into a game: wearing a mask can make you like a superhero, like Batman.

I have a 6 1/2-year-old. He went to camp with a Star Wars mask and came home with a Batman mask. I asked him what happened to his mask, and he said he and his friend traded at the end of the day. Remind them to wear their own mask and not to exchange them.

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