How to Stay Safe in the Classroom

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time, parents are determining the best protective gear for their child as many students return to school. It’s a bit more challenging for some parents as they consider their child’s age, special needs and medical conditions as they head back to the classroom.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “Masks may help prevent people (including children) who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.” But getting children to cooperate in the cause can be difficult, especially when it matters most – in the classroom, a public setting where kids are in close quarters with non-family members.

Medical experts weigh in on how to best protect children under special circumstances.

Age-appropriate Approach

The CDC recommends children under age 2 avoid wearing a face covering. But for any child older than age 2, a face covering is recommended.

“Keep the conversations appropriate for their age group, so they understand the importance of wearing a face covering,” said Jennifer Frank, MD, family medicine specialist and Chief Medical Officer at ThedaCare, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends, “For children under three, it is best to answer their questions simply in language they understand. If they ask about why people are wearing cloth face coverings, explain that sometimes people wear them when they are sick, and sometimes people wear them so they don’t get sick.”

The AAP adds, “Preschool and elementary students can benefit from wearing masks if they do not touch their mouths or noses a lot.” Pediatricians say grade school aged kids may be the toughest to acclimate to the new face mask culture.

“It’s understandable that children may be afraid of masks or cloth face coverings at first,” explains Dr. Frank. Young children might be scared, in part, because research shows it is during those years that kids learn how to read facial expressions – nonverbal communication – which is typically fully developed by their adolescent years.

The AAP has these ideas to make masks seem less scary:

  • Look in the mirror while wearing face coverings and talk about them.
  • Show your child pictures of other children wearing face coverings.

Involving children in the process early is key. “The best method is to make the wearing of a mask a normal and accepted event,” says Peter Roloff, MD, Pediatrician and Regional Medical Director of Primary Care at Ascension Medical Group Wisconsin, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner. “Encouraging masks to be worn to keep others safe is an altruistic feeling for a child.” But Dr. Roloff notes how a child responds to a mask has more to do with how their family and friends relate to the mask. “If this is an accepted and interesting accessory, children view this as a normal thing. If wearing the mask is viewed with negative feelings, children will pick up on those feelings as well.”

In the adolescent years, focus more on the science behind wearing face coverings to empower them to seek the facts. The CDC’s Considerations for Wearing Masks is a good place to start.

“Teenagers often have feelings of invincibility but reminding them that wearing a mask – especially when they can’t stay a safe distance apart – is protecting their parents, grandparents, teachers and others is helpful,” Dr. Roloff adds.

Special Needs Factors

“Masks also may be difficult for children with special needs like autism or other sensory issues,” Dr. Roloff says. Pediatricians say these children may have a hard time tolerating a cloth face covering, and special precautions may be needed. The CDC suggests parents “should consult with their health care provider for advice about wearing masks.”

For children with challenges such as developmental disabilities who, for example, need to interpret facial expressions for appropriate social interactions, or a hearing-impairment who rely on reading lips to communicate, a clear face shield is an option.

Despite growing evidence and rationale of the effectiveness of face shields, the CDC says, “It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles. The CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for masks.” That said, if a face shield is the only option in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, the government agency notes it “should wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face and extend to below the chin. Disposable face shields should only be worn for a single use. Reusable face shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.”

Medical Conditions Advice

Doctors suggest children who are considered high-risk or severely immunocompromised wear an N95 respirator mask for protection. And the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends, “Families of children at higher risk are encouraged to use a standard surgical mask if they are sick to prevent the spread of illness to others.”

“I remind children we often do not know when we might sneeze or cough, so it is always best to wear a mask when out around other people to keep them safe,” Dr. Roloff says. “It is also very important to wash or sanitize your hands frequently.”

When a child has certain chronic medical conditions such as asthma or cancer, surgical masks are considered the most protective. A cloth mask with a filter insert is another option. Check out this video from a mom who has a child with cancer, recommended by Be Safe Partner Catalpa Health. She speaks to giving parents the information they need to feel “comfortable, equipped and confident” in getting their child to wear a mask and with less anxiety.

Also, distance learning might be an option for children with special medical needs to keep them safe and to limit time wearing a mask during school days.

The CDC says, “Masks are a critical preventive measure and are most essential in times when social distancing is difficult.” But if masks are not tolerated, social distancing and frequent handwashing are important to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

One last medical note, children who are experiencing trouble breathing, are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance, should never wear a mask.

Overall, doctors suggest practicing wearing face coverings, face shields and surgical masks at home to help children get used to them as the new school year starts.