The start of the fall semester is just 10 days away for the LA Unified School District. And today is the last day students in the district can sign up for online learning for the upcoming school year. If they don’t, they’re automatically enrolled for in-person classes. Other school districts in California have already started or are getting ready to start next week.
After more than a year of disruptions, many parents and kids are excited about schools fully reopening for in-person learning. But there are also big concerns about safety because of the surging Delta variant. Parents have to weigh coronavirus risks against the mental and physical downsides of Zoom school.
Whether the Delta variant causes more infections in kids is still unclear, according to Dr. Katherine Williamson. But with precautions such as masking in place, the Orange County pediatrician says it’s critical for kids to get back into the classroom.
That’s due to the isolation kids have experienced, according to Dr. Alduan Tartt. He’s a clinical psychologist and a child and family therapist. Today, he says that nearly 1 in 3 kids are reporting clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression. That’s in comparison to 5-7% of youth pre-pandemic.
“We know there's a second pandemic. [The] second pandemic is mental health,” Tartt says. “While our kids are being quarantined away from their friends for their own safety, kids are suffering. And so we are looking forward to kids going back safely with the recommendation of primary care physicians and pediatricians and masking up, so that kids' mental health needs can be served.”
For those who are concerned about student safety, Tartt recommends talking to a physician in order to make an informed decision. He also advises schools to hold open houses before the school year starts in an effort to get students and their families reacquainted with the classroom.
“They can look and see that it's not what they're thinking on TV, and be able to adjust and adapt. So when we took both of our daughters to open house, they were able to see what the plan was, see smiling teachers, see everyone masked up, see what their classes are. And when they did that their anxiety decreased, and they were able to transition into the school system a lot better.”
In the case of a brand-new school setting, Tartt says to shorten the amount of time it takes to drop off a student.
“When you leave, the kids may struggle for a few minutes. But remember this is social norming, right? So looking at other kids doing their work and playing and pulling out their manipulatives and putting their book bags away, … kids adapt, and by the time they come home, you'll see that your kid has adjusted.” he says.
He adds, “When we model anxiety as parents, … kids pick it up. But when we model calmness and being relaxed, and we tell them with our body language and our words that this is a safe school environment, kids fall right in line.”
Is weekly testing needed?
When students first returned to the classroom last year, Williamson said there was minimal to no COVID spread in schools. That’s due in part to masking, temperature checks, and social distancing. But now, as new and more contagious variants emerge, she says being more cautious won’t hurt.
“We won't know for sure if things like weekly testing is going to be something that's an added benefit or a little bit of overkill. But I think in this time right now, anything we can do to keep kids safe, and still get them back to school, which is so important, ... I think we need to do it.”
She also recommends that students 12 years old and up get vaccinated. In the case of students who are unable to get the treatment, she says it's important to make sure those who are around the student are vaccinated.
“It is all up to us as a community to make sure that the schools are requiring kids to wear masks, and that everybody around those children who can't be vaccinated are vaccinated,” Williamson says. “It doesn't take just one thing or two things to prevent the spread and reduce the risk of kids getting sick from this virus. It takes all of these things together. And it takes the entire community working together.”