Kids Health: Back-to-School During Covid
How to prepare your kids to return to school during Covid-19
A lot of parents are asking not only whether they should send their children to school, but how they can best prepare them for returning to school in a safe way. It is a difficult decision based on many factors, and one that is unique for every family’s situation. Despite these uncertainties, there are still many things within our control to best prepare our children to be in the best health — both physically and mentally — as they return to school.
Why kids should return to school, when it is safe
It is hardly disputed that children learn better in the classroom. Not only are they getting an academic education, but they are also gaining social and emotional skills, and getting exercise, meals, and resources like mental health support. This obviously only makes sense when the community is able to control the spread of the virus so students, teachers, and staff are safe.
The universal formula: lessen viral exposure, strengthen immune system
My recommendation for parents helping to minimize their children’s risk of Covid infection is a function of viral exposure and the body’s immune resilience, or ability to fend off Covid virus particles from replicating into illness.
Limit Viral Exposure + Build Immune Resilience
Schools are doing all they can help prevent the spread of Covid-19 to children and adults alike. Regardless whether your child will be attending in person Monday through Friday or some portion of that, school will look drastically different from before the pandemic struck. Desks will likely be spread further apart and may be separated by partitions. Classroom capacity will be limited. Schools should also be following Covid screening protocols like this Daily Home Screening for Students checklist, recommended by the CDC.
Lowering viral load
You’ve heard it all before, but it bears repeating: as a protective measure in case of especially asymptomatic or presymptomatic Covid-infected individuals, every person at school should practice physical distancing, wear face coverings, and wash hands frequently. Each of these habits minimizes the amount of viruses in the air and traveling from person to person. This includes the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 that causes Covid-19, but also the viruses that cause other illnesses like the flu. The influenza virus circulates year round, but typically peaks between December and February, which is why we refer to it as cold and flu season.
Practice at home
To minimize viral exposure at school, parents can model for their children, teach, and practice protective habits together at home.
- Kids may need a frame of reference, like the length of a twin bed or length of the bathtub, to know how to maintain 6 feet physical distance between peers and adults.
- Practice wearing face masks when taking walks in the neighborhood
- Wash hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and water.
Keep rules simple and easy to understand for younger kids. Older children may need reminders why they need to stop the spread — for themselves and for those at higher risk.
Additionally, having kids at home may also be the best time to quit the nail-biting habit or other tendencies to touch the face, including rubbing eyes or nose. Wearing glasses — sunglasses or blue-light glasses — may also help to avoid those urges.
How safe is wearing a face mask for extended periods of time?
Not only is wearing a mask for a prolonged period of time considered safe, there are some who consider mask-wearing a form of hormesis. Hormesis is a good type of stress that pushes the body in a safe way, making a person able to adapt to challenges more easily. Families can practice this together indoors or outside playing a game, making mask-wearing a fun and positive experience.
One way people might be able to relate the importance of this is to think of professions where mask wearing is imperative. Surgeons, for example, wear masks during operations to avoid infecting their patients. We would never want the surgeon to wear their face masks incorrectly or request a work exemption if we were their patient. Though it seems surprising, everyone’s role of wearing a mask is just as important during these unprecedented times.
Maximizing Immune Resilience
The other half of the equation to protecting yourself from infection is to maximize one’s immune resilience. Scientists and epidemiologists now better understand the connection between certain risk factors and the likelihood/severity of Covid-19 in individuals. The CDC lists a number of underlying medical conditions that make an individual higher risk for severe illness ranging from obesity, diabetes, and asthma, to kidney disease and dementia.
This long list of health problems highlights the reactivity of western medicine: while western medicine focuses on disease, functional medicine (proactively) focuses on optimal health.
Functional Health = Immune Resilience
From a functional medicine perspective, the simple truth is that an individual with less optimally functioning cells is more likely to contract Covid-19 from less viral exposure, and is also more likely to experience severe illness from the disease. In other words, someone who is functionally healthy has higher immune resilience, and is more likely to avoid getting very ill.
Optimally functioning cells
An optimally functioning body adjusts more easily to changes in environment: temperature, humidity, exposure to germs. Optimally functioning means that our mitochondria — the energy producers of our bodies — are working efficiently. This mitochondrial health gives us more energy and also keeps our systems running properly, including the immune system. Ultimately, healthy mitochondria boost our immunity and also give us more energy to live an active lifestyle without pain or illness.
So if that is the case, what can we do to keep ourselves and our children’s cells optimally functioning?
Find out what the body is missing
Just as we take our cars to the auto shop on a regular basis to check fluid levels. tire pressure, and wheel alignment, functional medicine says the individual will benefit when the body’s micronutrient, hormone, and gut microbiome is also checked. This is what Dr. Anita’s wellness assessments are all about.
Test, don’t guess
Dr. Anita’s mantra is “test, don’t guess”. By performing a variety of specialized tests, she can see which micronutrients are deficient and which hormone levels are unbalanced. In conjunction with understanding an individual’s lifestyle habits, history, and diet, she collaborates with her patients on a plan that will allow the body to replenish these nutrients and therefore optimize cellular function. The result is increased energy, weight balance, and natural resolution of issues in the gut, brain, skin, and all other organs. Nutrient replenishment can be done in a variety of lifestyle changes, with or without supplements.
For those who choose not to get tested
Some individuals may choose not to get tested, which is a personal choice. Though it may take longer to achieve and less accurate, Dr. Anita still has some general recommendations to improve cellular health and therefore increase immune resilience.
The main principles that follow apply to both children and adults. In fact, many parents who are tested may find that their families also benefit because of their unified lifestyle changes.
Avoid Toxic Foods
Avoid the empty calories of candy, processed foods, and sweets. Our mitochondria process these poor quality foods quickly to generate energy, but also create free radicals and inflammation as a byproduct of the metabolizing process. In excess, these two components erode our bodies and require more resources to remove them from the body. Ultimately, these actions make us less immune resilient and physically weaker. If kids rely on wholesome meals more for their caloric needs, they are less likely to miss the snacks.
Eat Fruits and Vegetables
Children can build their own immunity while benefiting the environment by ditching packaged and processed foods, in favor of whole fruits and vegetables. Encourage children to fill their plates with natural vibrant colors. Diets rich in vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, proteins, and fiber will give our bodies the tools it needs to repair itself. The fiber in these foods can also help the body detox those previously mentioned byproducts that build up and slow down mitochondrial function.
Exercise increases our immunity primarily via its role in reducing inflammation. Many studies also suggest that physical activity may flush out foreign invaders from our airways, circulate white blood cells more rapidly throughout the body to detect and fight off illness earlier, raise body temperature to prevent bacteria from growing, and lower illness by reducing stress. Exercise also improves cardiovascular function and increases muscle mass, both which support mitochondrial health and therefore provide a boost in energy.
Try incorporating a brisk walk as a family after dinner or quick plyometrics like jumping jacks or squats throughout the day. Free workout videos and guides are available as apps, in social media, and YouTube. Three ten minute sessions can be just as good as a half hour of continuous exercise!
Get Enough Sleep
When we sleep, the immune system releases cytokines, a type of protein. Some of these proteins help promote sleep. Others increase when you are under stress or have an infection or inflammation. Reduced sleep also reduces production of these protective cytokines. When we don’t get enough sleep, infection-fighting antibodies and cells also decline.
Adults and children alike must get enough sleep to boost immunity. School aged children need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night. A normal bedtime routine and regular schedule without electronics and caffeine will help kids fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep.
Reserve antibiotics for only when necessary
Studies show that many pediatricians prescribe antibiotics somewhat reluctantly at the urging of parents who mistakenly think it can’t hurt. In fact, it can. Strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have flourished as a result, and a simple ear infection is more difficult to cure if it’s caused by stubborn bacteria that don’t respond to standard treatment. Antibiotics can also adversely affect a child’s gut microbiome, which can impede the body’s ability to fight other infections.
Children often pick up on their parent’s stress. When we are stressed, the body increases production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the effectiveness of the immune system by lowering the number of infection fighting lymphocytes. Stress can also affect the immune system by increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, and increasing digestive activity. As you can see, chronic stress has far reaching consequences on the body.
The more confidence parents have in their children’s ability to navigate school safely, the more calm these children may also be. This happens over time with encouraging conversation and empathy, and allowing them to voice their opinions without judgement. Just as adults wish to be heard and understood, children also have these same needs.
Routines can help provide some predictability in a constantly changing environment. Schools also have mental health resources that can be consulted if children are in need of additional support.
Advocate for Frequent, Affordable Paper Strip Testing
Scientists and public health experts have recently begun advocating for a new type of Covid-19 testing that can be done affordably at home. They argue that the current standard for Covid-19 testing, the nasal swab PCR test, is too sensitive and too slow at identifying who needs to be quarantined. Recovered, non-infectious patients who are still carrying the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material are being forced to continue quarantine because of a positive PCR result. Other times, sick patients are not quarantining themselves while they wait for their test results. In their proposal, Paper Strip Testing advocates say that schools could request students to show their at-home Covid test results for a few dollars a day (even less if subsidized by the government), thereby giving the public better information about if and how the disease is spreading. The FDA has yet to approve these options. Learn more about the testing tool and how you can influence our legislators to make it a reality.
Bottom line: the only constant is change
Things are constantly changing and much is still unknown about this disease. We can still make preparations based on our understanding of our circumstances now, and be ready to adapt. Having a trusted doctor at hand to guide you along the way and answer your questions is crucial. To prepare our children to return to school, we can get them tested and make a plan to rebalance any nutrient deficiencies, and teach them to protect themselves and others while in school. Many similarities exist between boosting a child’s and an adult’s immunity. Learning and practicing healthy habits together as a family will not only prepare a student for school, but prepare the entire family in the fight against this and other diseases.
- Returning to School During Covid https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Return-to-School-During-COVID-19.aspx
- New York Times, What Back to School Might Look Like in the Age of Covid-19 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/29/us/schools-reopening-coronavirus.html
- Healthy Children, Return to School During COVID-19 https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Return-to-School-During-COVID-19.aspx
- CDC, Covid-19 Screening Students for Symptoms https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/symptom-screening.html
- CDC, Daily Home Screening for Students https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community/schools-childcare/Daily-Home-Screening-for-Students-Checklist-ACTIVE-rev5A.pdf
- WebMD.com https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/features/school-stress-anxiety-children
- Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757