Back To School — COVID-19 and Vaccinations

July 29, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood, RN, PhD
FAAN Professor, UW-Milwaukee College of Nursing

After more than a year of virtual or hybrid learning, many school districts are preparing for students to return to the classroom. Ahead of this, the COVID-19 delta variant that is highly contagious, continues to spread causing some concern particularly since children under 12 have not been approved for the COVID-19 vaccine. While many states and school districts have lifted mandates requiring face mask coverings, by the time school starts and with the delta variant spreading rapidly, some school districts are already rethinking their COVID-19 safety protocols.

Dr. Agnes V. Williams, formerly an educator with the Beloit Public School and Milwaukee Public Schools system for more than 32 years, now lectures at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee School of Education. She cautions that while both parents and students may be eager to return to in-person learning, schools’ reopening will come with some challenges. In addition to the academic challenges, the delta variant spread of COVID-19 is causing some anxiety among educators, parents, and students.

“As parents prepare for their children to return to the classroom, we must follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Parents with children of the age to be vaccinated should make sure their children get the vaccine. Everyone must do their part to stay safe—washing hands, staying socially distant, and all the other recommended guidelines.

“At the same time, we must realize that it’s unrealistic to assume that you can tell a child that they must stay socially distant and expect them to do so. We are social beings. Where appropriate, parents should have their children vaccinated, make sure they wear masks and model that for them. And, while we don’t want to overwhelm our children, we must teach them to wash their hands frequently,” said Dr. Williams.

Dr. Regina Robbins, a pediatric physician with Wellstar Kenmare Pediatrics in Kennesaw, GA, and former pediatrician at Milwaukee Health Services, said that as children prepare to return to the classroom, it is also important that in addition to concerns about physical health, parents should understand that some children are also struggling emotionally.

“Children are ready and excited to return to school, but some are also dealing with issues related to socialization and isolation. It’s been overwhelming to see the toll that isolation has taken on everyone during this pandemic—including children. I’ve been in pediatric practice for more than 18 years and I am witnessing more children struggling emotionally than I have ever seen. I am making a lot of referrals to therapists and psychologists,” said Dr. Robbins.

In addition to the physical and emotional concerns, parents, teachers, and students are facing, Dr. Williams also said there is concern about students whose academic learning may have suffered during the pandemic. Dr. Williams offers sage advice to help ensure children do not fall behind and tips to get them caught up.

“There is something educators call ‘summer slippage’ where, during the summer months, students decline academically by as much as one month. This means that many teachers spend the first month of school reviewing what was learned the semester before summer. When possible, parents should send children to pre-college programs or visit the library on a regular basis. Also, it is a good idea to take children to places like the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs or other youth-focused organizations so they can exercise and engage socially with others. Research also supports connecting children with activities such as music and art because it engages both sides of the brain. Milwaukee Public Schools publishes a booklet listing a variety of recreation and summer programs for positive family experiences,” said Dr. Williams.

In addition to ‘summer slippage,’ studies show that many students who attended school virtually last year are already lagging. According to one report, students most likely to fall behind with virtual learning are those with disabilities, children of color, and those who fall below the poverty line. “What I have observed is basically a tale of two cities: some students have done extremely well (with virtual learning). They had the technology, parental support, and online connection with their teachers, so their learning continued and progressed. On the other hand, some students had limited or no access to technology and their parents could not or were not able to provide academic support. While the Milwaukee Public School District offered free Chromebooks to students, when there is no internet or spotty internet, they are left behind. There exists a great class divide in terms of learning during the pandemic.

“Our children have so much potential, but privilege makes the difference. Many parents enrolled their children in summer school because they recognized that they had fallen behind during the pandemic. Even that comes with the responsibility to make sure children are safe and following the CDC guidelines. Everyone has an equal responsibility to ensure our children and teachers are in a healthy, safe, and clean environment. This delta variant is keeping us on our toes, so we must remember to safeguard ourselves and our children; keep them well and wanting to learn,” said Dr. Williams.

While some parents and children may be eager to return to in-school learning, Dr. Robbins also offers some advice to parents to help prepare their children.

“We’re still recommending that people/children wear masks. Also make sure smaller children don’t trade or share their masks. This virus can be transmitted before you know it. Social distancing from children and teachers and not sharing objects like pencils, crayons, books, or water bottles should be emphasized. Also, if a child is sick with a fever or body aches, keep them at home. We don’t want sick children going to school if they may have COVID or other illnesses such as a cold or the flu. And finally make sure all children are up-todate on their yearly wellness checks and vaccines, and if they are 12 or over, get the COVID vaccine,” said Dr. Robbins.