During a live-streamed discussion with parents on Thursday, Aug. 6, a group of local pediatricians cautioned families to ensure their students are wearing masks and avoiding participation in high-risk sports. But, they said, there’s no universal answer to whether parents should send their children back to school.
No universal answer for a return to school, doctors say
The most important thing parents need to understand when choosing whether they’re comfortable sending their kids back to school buildings this fall is that there is not one option that is best for everyone, according to pediatrician Dr. Mitch Shiekh.
“Usually what I try to tell people is there’s no one answer,” Shiekh said. “I don’t try to tell you that there’s just one thing that I’m going to tell you what to do and that’s all you’re going to do.”
Shiekh said he usually starts by looking into the background of the students when advising a parent if he thinks sending them back to in-person classes is a good idea. If the child has a chronic medical condition that affects their respiratory system, such as asthma, Shiekh said it may be better for them to stay virtual.
He added that even conditions such as attention deficit disorder can make it unsafe for a student to return to the classroom if they are not consistently able to keep a mask on, maintain social distance and wash their hands regularly.
But Shiekh also said that while everyone is at risk of getting seriously ill when they contract COVID-19, children have consistently shown to be at a lower risk of developing severe symptoms. He said that as of July 14, only around 200,000 of the 2.8 million nationwide cases of COVID-19 were pediatric patients, and very low percentages of those cases were severe.
“Of that (200,000), 1% are hospitalized, and of the 1% hospitalized, we’re talking about less than 0.3% dead,” he said. “But I always tell them, that does not mean your child will not get sick and will not have issues with this. I always tell them always to take that into account.”
Regarding transmission from kids coming home from school to their parents, Shiekh said the best strategy was to quickly establish a daily routine. He said the safest thing for students returning from classrooms to do would be to shower immediately upon getting home to decontaminate themselves.
“You’re taking your shoes off at the front,” Shiekh said. “You’re going directly upstairs. You’re really not in contact with anything. You’re basically washing up, and therefore contamination is minimized.”
Masks: When and how kids should wear them
Mask wearing has been a contentious topic in recent months, and local school districts have been a bit split on the issue. The Gainesville City School System has made masks mandatory for students for in-person instruction, and the Hall County School District has said masks are required for students "when practical." Both districts are requiring staff to wear masks.
The Longstreet Clinic pediatricians regularly emphasized the importance of mask wearing as one of the three most crucial practices to reduce transmission, along with regular hand washing and social distancing.
Shiekh said he recommends parents get their kids ready for wearing a mask at school now by having them wear their mask for a couple full days around the house.
“Trying to get them used to having the mask on before you send them to school will probably do them a world of good,” he said.
During recess or whenever students are outside, it can be OK for kids to temporarily remove their masks — so long as they maintain 6 feet of distance from fellow students — according to Dr. Rachel Crudgington, another of the Longstreet Clinic pediatricians.
“I do think there’s times, naturally, for them to be able to take a break, and one of those times is when they’re outside and not around other people with that 6-foot social distancing,” she said.
Crudgington did say, however, that at-risk students and students playing in proximity or on the same playground equipment should keep their masks on while outside to maintain their safety.
For students with difficulty keeping their masks on, Longstreet Clinic nurse practitioner Candy Evans said she recommended sports gaiters, which cover the neck and entire lower face of wearers, as an easier to manage option.
“I think that is a choice for children that might keep them from fidgeting with the mask,” she said.
What about school sports?
The Georgia High School Association is currently planning a return to fall sports, but Longstreet Clinic pediatrician Dr. Richard Shelton expressed some doubts on the safety of sports and other extracurricular activities for students this fall. The GHSA announced Thursday that it had called off preseason football scrimmages, casting doubt on the rest of the season.
Shelton said canceling all sports would be “a very difficult decision,” noting also the scholarship implications that high school sports can carry for older students. Regarding youth sports, he was a bit more certain.
“I’m not sure that youth sports and youth leagues should really be doing a lot of their normal activities this fall,” he said. “I understand some of the high school things and even colleges because of things involved with scholarships and all those kinds of things that are involved there, but none of that is really going on for youth sports.”
Shelton said sports deemed “high risk” — or sports where there is “close, sustained contact and a lack of significant protective barriers” — are particularly dangerous for participating students. High-risk sports include football, wrestling, lacrosse and competitive cheerleading, according to Shelton.
Any sport where “respiratory droplets” can accidentally pass between competitors provides a high level of risk for transmission of the virus.
“Remember, this is a respiratory droplet virus,” Shelton said. “That’s how it is transmitted. Those places where those situations cannot be controlled are higher risk.”
Shelton said low-risk sports, including individual running and swimming events, throwing events, golf, weightlifting and cross country, are safer.
Regardless of what sport a child is participating in, Shelton said it was important for participants to not share equipment, to sanitize their hands regularly and to stay 6 feet apart from one another whenever possible and during rest periods.
Shelton said he was unsure if spectators would be allowed in sports events but advised that any parent with pre-existing conditions that put them at high risk of developing serious symptoms if they get COVID-19 should not attend any sporting events.
“Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is,” he said.