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The school health forecast looks gloomy for the coming months. Doctors are predicting a growing pandemic of the unvaccinated, including young children ineligible for vaccines, fueled by the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Parents are grappling with dreadful options, especially now that masks will be optional for students in schools throughout the state. Do they send their children back to school and possibly expose them to a Delta variant infection? Or do they keep them home and risk their mental health and academic skills with additional months of online schooling?
There are no easy answers to this dilemma, said Dr. Chad Sanborn, an infectious disease specialist at KIDZ Medical Services, which has offices throughout South Florida.
“I do get nervous that there will be continued significant spread among children when schools reopen,” Sanborn said. “This Delta variant seems to be a good deal more contagious than previous coronavirus variants. Using a mask and having physical distance between you and someone else decreases your contagiousness to others. So, if we use fewer masks and less social distancing, there would be an expected rise in infections for a given time period.”
There are so many ways COVID can take us as this new academic year begins; here are some questions sent in by South Florida residents and answers from experts who are closely monitoring our children’s health and well-being.
Q. “If I want my child to wear a mask, will a teacher help me make sure he keeps it on?”
A. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that children wear masks in school. However, Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued an executive order making masks in school optional.
You would have to tell your child to keep it on; teachers should not be asked to enforce this family rule, said Justin Katz, president of Palm Beach County’s Classroom Teachers Association.
“If masking is optional, teachers have zero role in regulating mask wearing, and the union position is they should not get involved, even if a parent has notified them they want their child wearing a mask,” Katz said. “It is not our job. We have zero authority by way of district policy or state statute to enforce mask wearing by parent preference. It will only cause disruption and drama to try to enforce an unenforceable parent preference to mask their child. That is between the child and their parent. Period.”
Q. “Is the teachers’ union encouraging teachers to wear masks?”
A. “The union encourages every member, non-member, and eligible member of society to get vaccinated if they are eligible,” Katz said. “But no, we are not telling teachers to mask nor not. That is the district’s role, and they have chosen to make masking optional at this time.”
Q. At which percentage of daily COVID cases would a school close? (Anything over 5% positivity is considered high.) We are at 17% now. — Sommer Burns Martorano
A. There’s never been a single metric, such as the community positivity rate, that would close a school. South Florida’s schools reopened last fall after a few weeks of closure and stayed open even as COVID rates fluctuated wildly. School districts say there will be few changes in the coming year, despite the Delta variant that has forced Florida’s hospitalization rates to skyrocket.
Q. What is the actual policy for when a child is positive or exposed? Will the whole class quarantine? Will kids use virtual learning tools again? What about siblings of those kids? — Kristen Murphy
A. Each school district has its own policies, but most go like this: Families have to report cases of COVID-19 in their households by the next day. School administrators decide what needs to be disinfected at the school. The infected student must quarantine at home and will be given school work. Students can return when they are symptom-free without medication for 24 hours.
Classmates would not have to stay home unless they are found to have been among an infected student’s direct contacts. Contact tracing by the Florida Department of Health determines which of a student’s contacts need to quarantine.
Q. My son has really fallen behind since he was learning at home last year. How can he catch up?
A. Last year was a tough one, academically and emotionally, and it shows through recently released test scores. Drops were especially prominent in math; scores for third- to eighth-graders in Broward fell from 63% proficient in 2019 to 45% last year, 64% to 49% in Palm Beach County, and 63% to 48% in Miami-Dade.
Many students didn’t have the discipline or supervision needed to learn at home on a computer; teachers had to navigate lessons with some students in their classrooms and others at home. The number of F grades more than doubled from the previous year.
Jason Robinovitz, chief operating officer at Score at the Top Learning Centers, which has offices in Palm Beach and Broward, recommends finding an online assessment that can tell you which of your child’s skills need the biggest boost. Once you figure this out, he recommends these sites for free lessons online: florida.pbslearningmedia.org and learner.org.
“Once you’re back in the classroom, seek out your teachers for extra help on a regular basis and ask a lot of questions,” Robinovitz suggested.
Q. Students who are too young to get a vaccine are going to be exposed to unvaccinated teachers and staff. Should we be more worried about the kids or adults?
A. Worry about both, said Dr. Carlo Zeidenweber, a pediatric cardiologist with KIDZ Medical Services, which has offices throughout South Florida.
“Adults tend to get sicker, and it is usually the adult ICU that is the busiest when the virus is very active,” Zeidenweber said. “But we are certainly seeing kids with COVID too in the hospital.”
Q. What should parents consider about the spread of the Delta variant as they decide whether to send their kids back to the classroom?
A. “I think it is very important for parents before they make that decision to be very aware of how high the infection rate is in the area where they would be sending their kids to school,” Zeidenweber said. “Parents also need to understand what the school policy is regarding contact precautions, social distancing and contact tracing.” Contact your principal if you have specific questions about a school’s procedures.
Q. How does COVID-19 typically affect children?
A. “Most have only a mild disease, but some children go on to develop MIS-C (Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children), which is a rare but serious inflammatory syndrome that is linked to coronavirus infection,” said Dr. Jorge Perez, medical director of South Miami Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Neonatal Transport Team. “As its name depicts, this syndrome could involve multiple organs and tissues such as the heart, lungs, blood vessels, kidneys, digestive system, brain, skin or eyes, which become inflamed.”
Perez said symptoms depend on which areas of the body are affected. “The exact cause is unknown but appears to be an excessive immune response,” he said. “It’s more common in Black and Latino children and in children ages 3 to12.”
Q. What kinds of issues should be taken into consideration as parents decide whether to send their kids back to school during this time of the Delta variant? For example, should they consider whether their children felt isolated learning at home last year or whether they fell behind in school? How should they weigh catching COVID vs. mental health issues?
A. To make this decision, parents need to consider the overall physical and mental health of their children, said Dean Aslinia, department of counseling chair at the University of Phoenix.
“For instance, children that have higher than normal social anxiety and prefer isolation need more social engagement than children that find it natural to be around others,” he said. “Furthermore, children that are on the autism spectrum should also have their developmental needs assessed and considered. A continued absence for these types of children might create much more long-lasting behavioral patterns, which will become more difficult to modify. It’s important to be aware that while children might prefer the isolation, that does not always mean it’s what will benefit their growth.”
Q. If children are feeling fearful about returning to school, what should adults do to allay these fears?
A. Aslinia said fear of going to school is natural. Even prior to the pandemic, children would often exhibit anxiety about going back to school.
“Recognizing that any life change may trigger some anxiety for your child is the first step,” he said. “Next, addressing those anxieties one by one becomes crucial. Being honest with your child, and walking them through their fears becomes a very helpful technique. As an example, if the child fears not being liked by others, assessing the root causes of this insecurity, and also how likely such an event would be, can help the child greatly.”
Q. Will I be able to keep my child in long-distance learning this year? — Emily Blaser
I would like to know why the schools we are in cannot allow us to choose a virtual option until it is safe to allow us our spot back in school. — Aneela Siddique
A. The state is requiring districts to discontinue the remote learning we saw last year, where a student’s assigned teacher instructed students in the room and online at the same time. However, there are still some virtual county programs that existed prior to the pandemic and will continue this year.
Then there’s Florida Virtual School, a statewide, tuition-free online program, based in Orlando. FLVS has seen an enormous increase in applications to its full-time school since the pandemic began, spokeswoman Hailey Fitch said. Enrollment is still open for grades K-8 until Aug. 13, but high school registration is closed. Families that would like to incorporate one or more online courses as part of their education plan for the upcoming school year can also enroll in FLVS Flex year-round and start at any time.