COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Wellness

Back-to-school tips from our director of infection prevention and control

Mother and daughter wearing masks

With the start of a new school year, it’s important to recognize that there is no one-fits all approach to schooling during COVID-19.

In Toronto, public health authorities have dedicated more resources to the school system to support training and case management. Schools will have much stronger surveillance and exclusion policies that they will be quick to enforce, ensuring only healthy children are permitted to enter.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with the idea of sending their children back to school this fall, and that’s okay. There may be many reasons for this, including underlying health conditions of their own child or that of a close family member.

We must respect the decisions that all parents are making, and it’s important that we support each other through this challenging time with positive reassurance.

What’s your advice on the best way for kids who are heading back to school to stay safe?

I have two young kids, so I understand how uncertain times can lead to a lot of anxiety, especially with little ones still trying to remember to cover their coughs and sneezes.

Practicing good hand hygiene, keeping hands away from the face, wearing a mask, minimizing the touching of shared surfaces (like opening a door with your hip or elbow) and remaining physically distant as much as possible will all be important in preventing transmission of all kinds of viral bugs common in the fall/winter season, in addition to COVID-19.

Overall, parents have been pretty good at reinforcing good public health measures throughout the pandemic. The good news is that even if we have a few people who may not be so great at these measures all the time, the vast majority are doing the right thing most of the time, which also decreases the potential for spread of these bugs.

Helping your child navigate back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19

What are must-have items every child should be taking to school? 

Have some fun with this and engage your kids in the process! Ask them about what tools they think they would need in order to be self-sustaining in the classroom. It’s almost like a game of Survivor, COVID-style.

Hand sanitizer is a must, though it’s likely the school will also be providing this.

It’s important to send your children with the supplies they’ll need so that they do not need to share – pencils, colour pencils, scissors, erasers, etc. Pack them snacks and a full lunch, including enough water to get them through the day.

A mask is also preferable (and in most cases, mandatory) to contain secretions and prevent contamination of the environment or other children. Mask selection can be fun – engage kids in a process where they get to pick their mask so that they are excited to wear it. My son loves sharks, so I bought him masks with various shark images printed on them, like shark teeth and sharks swimming. He’s only 5, and he wears his shark masks proudly when indoors. Be sure to label these masks and any other personal items in order to prevent loss and sharing.

What are some “do’s” for kids of all ages?

Do teach your kids how to wash or sanitize their hands properly and when to do so, such as after using the bathroom, before eating or drinking, and before and after gym class or playing sports.

Do teach your kids how to safely put on (don) and remove (doff) their mask. Once their mask is in place and covering the nose and mouth, it should not be touched. When it’s time for a snack or a meal, the mask needs to come off and be stored safely. It may be good to send your child with a food grade bag or plastic container for clean storage for their mask.

Staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic

Do remind your kids of the importance of physical distancing. Kids love to hug. Give them alternatives like winking, foot or elbow taps which are still nice ways to greet someone and show them you care.

Do stay home when sick and measure your child’s temperature before they go to school to avoid disappointment at the door. It has always remained important to keep sick children home when they are acutely sick, but now this will be strictly enforced by the schools.

Are there any “don’ts” to be aware of?

Do not send your kids to school with toys. These toys will be shared, which we are trying to avoid as much as possible.

Do not touch your eyes, mouth or nose, unless you have just cleaned your hands. This is because our hands can serve as the portal of entry into our eyes, mouth or nose, so if they’re contaminated, that’s how a virus can be introduced into our bodies. Washing your hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer are both effective methods in reducing the spread of viruses and germs.

Between COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season, what do you think will happen later this fall?

I think it’s super important to remain flexible. Our response to COVID-19 must remain nimble. If the level of community transmission starts to increase, we may need to adjust our approach accordingly.

I certainly have strong hopes that the new school year and lessons learned over the past 8 months has prepared us for a successful new transition, and I know my children are optimistic as well.

About the author

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Natasha Salt

Natasha Salt is Sunnybrook's Director of Infection Prevention and Control.