Even well past mid-August, angst over when, how or even whether to send children back to school continues to hammer the hearts and minds of parents, school administrators, health experts and government officials. Wichita is no exception.
“Families should be prepared with a childcare plan should illness cause a classroom, school or the district as a whole to temporarily suspend in-person learning,” Wichita Public Schools superintendent Alicia Thompson warns on the district’s return-to-school page. USD 259 has been reviewing how to start this new school year with a variety of learning options that include online and in-person teaching.
The calls for solid, practical information and advice in the age of COVID-19 did not fall deaf ears. More than a dozen local and regional physicians and mental health experts convened in May to form the Kansas COVID Workgroup for Kids, a collaborative group of medical experts who are looking at the physical, social and psychological impacts that COVID-19 is having on Kansas children.
In July, the group submitted a 26-page recommendation for school reopening to the Kansas Department of Education, which was endorsed by KU Wichita Pediatrics, the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians, and the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In it, the collaborative covered many touchpoints at the forefront of most people’s minds today: COVID risk, where children stand in all this, alternative school schedules and recommendations on breaks, school nurses, hand hygiene, masking, social distancing guidance, and more.
“Our goal is to provide clinical expertise and guidance, as well as engagement in the community from people dealing with children,” said group facilitator Stephanie Kuhlmann, DO, a pediatric hospitalist for KU Wichita Pediatrics and pediatric medical director at Wesley Medical Center. “We realized schools needed assistance for reopening, so we quickly expanded our team to include additional physicians, school nurses, and school counselors.”
The group has been meeting with several school districts, board of education meetings and task forces to provide guidance on how to navigate the academic year during a pandemic. Subcommittees tackle issues such as nutritional needs, internet access and the general wellbeing of underprivileged kids.
“We really wanted to have a unified voice to be advocates for kids,” Kuhlmann said. “They certainly are impacted by the pandemic in ways the adults may not recognize.”
That advocacy also extends to hot button issues such as child abuse recognition and reporting, which has declined since COVID shut down schools last spring. In fact, Child Protective Services intake reports fell from a high of 1,801 in February to 768 by April and 953 in June, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Child advocates fear the reduced number of incidents is largely due to the absence of mandatory reporters that children normally would come across in schools. Gone since last spring are the eyes and ears of teachers, administrators, nurses and physicians as families self-isolate during the pandemic.
“It’s a huge concern,” said Kelli Netson-Amore, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at KUMC-W and workgroup member. “This entire pandemic has highlighted how important our schools are, how many things they provide besides just education. Teachers and other school staff are incredibly important as safe people for kids.”
The workgroup also is taking the long view of the pandemic. Besides looking at the effects of social isolation, and teacher and staff well-being, a subcommittee also is looking at ways to combat conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID, the pandemic and similar threats by looking at ways to improve the science curriculum, education and literacy in schools.
“Specifically about viruses and how diseases spread,” Netson-Amore said. “We’re also looking at digital and internet safety because kids are spending more time online and are more vulnerable to people taking advantage of them.”
The group plans to publish and distribute a series of resource sheets taking a closer look at those priorities and what physicians, mental health experts and educators recommend.
Meanwhile, the unpredictable nature of COVID has made regulating the new academic school year challenging. Advocates can only prepare children and their families the best they can, giving them an honest and practical idea of what to expect and what school will look like in the new era.
But it’s going to come down to leading by example and staying the course with safety efforts, said pediatrician Rebecca Reddy, MD.
“Until our community comes together and starts wearing masks and starts taking social distancing seriously, we are going to see repeated waves of COVID,” she said. “I’m not worried about my patients getting COVID. Having the illness is not as hard on children, yet it affects children disproportionately because the adults’ behavior in our community is what is going to shut down the schools.”