The L.L. Bean catalog, with all of its charming and colorful back-to-school backpacks, recently arrived on schedule to herald the annual return of students to the classroom. However, as we all know, this is no ordinary school year. Maine families and school communities are grappling with a host of complex and looming anxieties about the return to school.

Dr. Deborah Hagler Jeffrey Morris, CPP

Students have been out of school since the early spring, missing out on instruction, friends, and meals as a result. For some students, being out of school has also cut off access to important healthcare, including mental health support and occupational services such as speech therapy. According to the Maine Department of Education, approximately one in five students in the Brunswick and Freeport systems are receiving free lunches, and 25-35% of students in RSU-1 and SAD-75 schools rely on free lunches. Our schools truly provide critical infrastructure for many children.

Thankfully, children have not borne the brunt of serious health consequences related to COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from February 1 through July 11, there were 36 COVID-19-related deaths reported in children ages 1-14. This is a stark difference compared to the 27,167 COVID-19 deaths reported in the 65 to 74 age group during the same time frame. Data also suggest that young children may be less susceptible to catching COVID-19 and less likely to spread the virus. However, many of the professionals that allow schools to operate smoothly have underlying chronic conditions or are in the age range that could put them at higher risk if they do become ill. Many children live with their grandparents, and when they have no symptoms at all but are infectious, they risk bringing the infection home to loved ones.

What does this mean for Maine? A low rate of new infection in the community is one of the key factors that will help our schools to reopen safely, and Maine finds itself in the fortunate position of having very few new infections identified per county. In the last two weeks, the trend of new cases has been declining or stable. We also know that we are doing enough testing to keep up with a moving target; the overall percentage of positive tests for acute infection in Maine is 2.9%. The World Health Organization recommends this level be less than 5%.

Still, we are currently bombarded by reports of schools opening around the country in areas where things have not gone well. Stories of countries that have achieved success at managing the virus now seem to be missing from the conversation. The question remains: how do we move forward in Maine as we cope with the legitimate anxiety around opening schools and keeping our kids and communities safe?

The most important step will be to remain deliberate and focus on what we know works to keep community transmission levels low. We know that asymptomatic transmission of this virus continues to fuel the pandemic. In order to keep those at risk safe and contain the spread of the disease, everyone needs to participate in masking, social distancing, and good hand hygiene. Masks may provide some protection to the wearer, but more importantly, they protect others.

This is especially true in the case of someone who is asymptomatic and infectious, but who has no idea they are spreading the virus. A mask can stop or markedly limit this type of transmission.

Before your children return to class this fall, make sure they are caught up on their routine childhood vaccines. It will also be incredibly important this fall for as many community members as possible to get a flu shot. Influenza and COVID-19 share many symptoms, and influenza is more serious for children. It would not be impossible to contract both illnesses at the same time. However, the more community members that receive the flu vaccine, the higher the chances of strong herd protection for the community.

We will also have to be very conscientious about staying home when sick, even if the illness seems mild. This will mean that the school year may be bumpy, and kids may miss more school than average. The flipside may be true as well: with the increased emphasis on public health measures, we may see a decrease in the burden of traditional viral illness. The Mid Coast Hospital Walk-In Clinic is now open at 7 a.m. daily and can offer guidance, both in person and virtually, should you have questions about symptoms before the school day begins.

Both adults and youth have a great deal of anxiety about returning to the classroom. Adults can help address these powerful emotions by being conscientious about their own reactions to situations. Children are looking to parents, teachers, and those they trust to help make sense of things in uncertain times. Avoid catastrophic thinking, and do not say phrases like, “This year is going to be a disaster.” These types of statements will not reassure your child.

It will also help to empower kids by working on behaviors they can do. Practice wearing a mask, and start slowly building up the length of time wearing it each day. Reward your child’s effort in this endeavor. Almost all children can wear masks, but it will help if adults around them model the behavior. It will also help to re-establish routines and set bed and wake up times. If you are doing a hybrid model, you can create a space that is supportive to remote learning.

Experts statewide have been meeting regularly all summer to help reduce risks of re-entering classrooms for Maine’s school community, and they will continue to evaluate the situation as the school year proceeds. Helpful information about local response for COVID-19, flu prevention, and resources for parents is also available at www.midcoasthealth.com/covid19.

We are fortunate to live in a small state, and thus far, we have been guided through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to steady leadership. However, it will take a village to keep our school communities safe this winter. We each have an important role, and to be successful, we all must play our parts.

Dr. Deborah Hagler is part of Mid Coast Pediatrics and President of Maine American Academy of Pediatrics.

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