Coronavirus and kids: Keeping them safe, talking to them without raising alarm bells

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Children’s backpacks at Palms Middle School. Photo by Amy Ta.

So far, public K-12 schools in L.A. are staying open amid coronavirus, although large events have been canceled, and anyone who's traveled abroad in the last two weeks is not being allowed to come onto school campuses. 

Are these steps enough to protect public school students and staff, or should parents be concerned? 

We ask Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and public health at UC Davis.

“I think parents are concerned about both sides of the coin. On the one side, they're worried that their kids could get infected at school, particularly … kids who have asthma, and cystic fibrosis, and heart disease, and are immune-compromised,” Wilkes says. 

He shares that the previous day, he saw a patient who wanted her two grandkids to stay home from school for a few weeks: “She was oxygen-bound and just was worried they were going to bring infections into the family.”

The other side of the coin: parents are worried about how to keep their kids safe at home -- not only from infections, but other trouble. 

“There are, of course, the families who get breakfast and lunch at school. And the kids have no other way to to get that kind of food. So for many kids, school is the safest place to be. So it is a huge decision for a superintendent to make about whether to close schools or not from an infectious disease perspective, which is only a part of the puzzle,” says Wilkes. 

He says we’re going to see more and more schools closing, and it’s  probably a good idea.

The World Health Organization recently came out with a study about the impact of COVID-19 on children. What did it find? 

Wilkes says this is important and might contradict what he just said. 

“It says that basically less than 2% of world cases are under the age of 20. This is a disease that's primarily affecting ... people at the upper end of the age spectrum. Most cases of kids are very mild. In fact, so mild that many parents may not even know they have anything other than [a] cold,” he says. 

Wilkes continues, “The problem is obviously that kids are kids, and kids are less hygienic. They're messier. They don't wash their hands. So it is important for us to keep this in perspective that we really don't need to worry about otherwise healthy kids. It's the impact those kids are going to have on both sicker kids, but also on adults. And they bring these bugs home.”

How do we discuss COVID-19 with children -- without scaring them? 

“Our kids are watching what we're doing and how we're acting -- every bit as much as they're watching and listening to what we're saying. So we need to give them reassurance. We need to make sure that they know that not only are we as parents -- but society is taking steps to protect them,” Wilkes says. 

He advises that we need to give kids steps to take -- so they’re in control. That includes reminding them to wash their hands, and that they should cough into a tissue or into their arm. 

We should watch for their signs of anxiety. “Kids often don't say things, but they behave differently. And those are our warning signs that we may need to intervene a little bit more,” he says.  

Then it’s important to talk with them about verbalizing their feelings. 

Is there a time to turn off the news? 

“Yes, I think that we need to limit media exposure. But in our society, that's nearly impossible. It's important to approach kids developmentally. In other words, young kids (3, 5, 7) need to be approached where they are. We need to talk with them, but they're hearing these things everywhere,” says Wilkes. 

He gives the example of discussing sex with kids: “Parents who choose not to talk about sex -- it doesn't mean their kids aren't thinking about sex, and they're not going to make some big mistakes. So it's much better to engage kids, to ask them what they're hearing, and to ask them if they're afraid, and to address exactly what they're concerned about. There's data to suggest that the more we talk to kids, the more we engage them, and the more we approach them where they are, the better they're going to do.”




Chery Glaser


Amy Ta, Evan George