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Eluding the virus while at school: a Q&A with health experts

Two doctors and a health policy expert weigh in on how to keep kids, educators and their families safe when classes start.
This image from a Pinellas County Schools video shows socially distanced desks in preparation for the 2020-21 school year.
This image from a Pinellas County Schools video shows socially distanced desks in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020
Updated Aug. 5, 2020

BACK TO SCHOOL 2020 | Click to scroll down for more

As Florida continues to report thousands of new coronavirus cases every day, the Tampa Bay Times asked two doctors and a health policy expert how best to keep kids, educators and their families safe when classes start up again. Here’s what they said:

What threats do families face as kids go back to school?

The planned return to campuses means lots of people coming and going from different households to one place — the opposite of what health experts recommend to contain transmission of the virus.

In-person school brings about more risk of exposure, which increases the chance of illness, said Dr. Allison Messina, chair of the division of infectious disease and medical director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

A mid-July rise in cases among children prompted local school districts to delay the start of school to the end of August. At least one local School Board — Hillsborough — plans to revisit that decision with an eye toward changing its plans for on-campus classes if the spread worsens.

But it’s important to consider, too, the benefits of returning to school, said Katherine Drabiak, an assistant professor of public health law and medical ethics at the University of South Florida. “Fear, social isolation and barriers to educational continuity are risks to children that we should not minimize,” she said.

Drabiak cites information by the World Health Organization, which says children are least at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Of the small percentage who have, few have died or been seriously ill. Most have been asymptomatic, and people who are asymptomatic rarely transmit the disease, she said.

Still, the number of Florida kids with the virus is significant, spiking in the latter half of July to more than 31,000. Hospitalizations increased too, as did rates of children testing positive for the virus. About one out of every five cases in Florida is a person 24 years old or younger.

Students with underlying health conditions or family members who are sick and/or elderly should take extra precautions, Drabiak said.

She also warns against hand sanitizers that contain methanol, a harmful chemical absorbed through the skin and found in at least 75 brands of sanitizers recently recalled by the Federal Drug Administration. Students should use soap and water when possible.

How should students social distance when there isn’t much room?

Sometimes, social distancing may not be possible at school, such as on the bus or in a small classroom. Students should do their best, but most campuses will have space limitations that make it hard to keep everyone 6 feet apart all the time.

That leaves face masks as the “next line of defense,” said Dr. Christina Canody, director of pediatric services for BayCare Health System.

She has helped Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego with plans for reopening and said steps have been taken to decrease class sizes, move activities outdoors and reduce foot traffic in hallways by staggering class schedules.

Messina, who also has helped with the district’s planning, said some schools are talking about treating each class as a “pod” that stays together and away from other classes through the day — a strategy that has proved successful in childcare centers this year.

She suggests that schools allow students to eat lunch in places other than the cafeteria, and that lunches could “occur in many different waves” so that fewer kids are eating at a time.

When and how should students wear a mask?

Students should wear masks through the entire school day, except when eating and during activities, like recess, where consistent 6-foot separation is possible, Messina said.

Masks should fit over both the nose and mouth, and children should not touch or adjust their masks frequently, Drabiak added. Reusable masks should be washed each day between uses to decrease risk of illness.

A mask should be at least two layers of fabric and lay flat against the cheeks and chin, Canody added. Children should wash their hands before and after wearing a mask, and it should be stored inside-out inside a pocket or plastic bag when not being worn.

Local districts have said they will work to provide breaks allowing students to go without masks for short periods in a safe place.

How can students avoid infecting their teachers?

Students can protect their teachers the same way they protect everyone else: by following health recommendations to social distance, wear face coverings and wash their hands.

Those who aren’t feeling well should stay home from school until they feel better. Parents should encourage their children not to touch their face and to cough and sneeze into their elbow rather than into their hands, Canody said.

What are the dos and don’ts of using the restroom at school?

Students should not take off their masks when in the restroom at school, Canody said. And they should wash their hands upon entering and exiting.

No one should congregate or share personal items, such as makeup or brushes, while in the restroom. It is not a place to socialize or chat with friends, Messina said.

She recommends that children use a paper towel to turn off the sink faucet after washing their hands for at least 20 seconds. The water should be warm and kids should use plenty of soap, Drabiak added. They should avoid hand dryers, as they spread germs into the air.

How should students conduct themselves on the bus?

Students should wear face masks at all times while on the bus, typically the closest-quarter space related to school.

It’s important that they follow directions and sit in their assigned seat, Canody said. They should touch as little as possible, especially the tops of seats as they walk up and down the center aisle.

Local school districts have directed bus drivers to board students in ways that cut down on passing in the aisles, and windows will be kept open when possible increase air circulation.

Students should not eat or drink on the bus, and should sanitize their hands before and after riding.

Children who begin to feel sick at school should not be sent home on the bus, Drabiak said.

How should students conduct themselves at lunchtime?

It’s likely some students, especially younger ones, will have lunch in their regular classroom, Canody said. They’ll be told to wash their hands before and after, and to not share food or utensils.

For older students, there will be grab-and-go options but no traditional cafeteria line, Canody added. All students can bring food from home if they or their parents are worried about contamination of cafeteria food.

Because there are no masks during mealtime, social distancing becomes even more important, Messina said. Students should not sit directly across from one another, and they should eat outside if administrators and weather permit.

What can parents practice with their kids to make sure they are ready for school?

It sounds simple, but one of the best lessons a parent can teach their child is how to properly wash their hands, Messina said. “Make sure to scrub all areas ... Don’t forget the fingertips!”

Adults should also show kids how to safely wear a face mask, including how to put it on and take it off, Canody said. She suggests a “practice school day” so children know what to expect.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage