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Back to school: WellSpan shares safety tips for in-person, virtual learning

August 26, 2020

Health care for children doesn’t stop amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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WellSpan physician assistant Ed Schuurman reading “The Chilly Little Penguin” to a patient.

WellSpan physician assistant Ed Schuurman reading “The Chilly Little Penguin” to a patient.

On a Friday morning in May, WellSpan physician assistant Ed Schuurman read “The Chilly Little Penguin” to a 4-year-old boy during a well-child check at the Waynesboro Medical Office Building.

Schuurman’s comforting presence set the tone for WellSpan’s commitment to caring for children in the months ahead without disruption through navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Providing a safe environment for our vulnerable populations which include children is our top priority, but we also have to recognize disruptions and uncertainty that they have experienced,” said Schuurman. “I feel it is very important to connect with children right now and offer them any form of comfort that can ease their mind and prevent avenues for depression.”

WellSpan offices continued to work through the summer to make sure vaccinations were safely administered to children despite the Pa. Department of Health’s temporary suspension of childhood immunization requirements and the uncertainty of what the upcoming school year would look like.

Several WellSpan offices created “safe rooms” that were designated for well-child checks and vaccinations as well as eliminating wait times so waiting rooms remain lightly populated. In addition, staff worked tirelessly to proactively screen incoming patients – both at the time they were being scheduled and at the point of their arrival – to help prevent potential COVID patients from being seen in the office.

“Our goal was to point potentially infected patients to the resources which are best able to evaluate their symptoms and direct their treatment while keeping primary care offices free from infection,” Schuurman said.

WellSpan recognizes the critical importance of childhood vaccinations, not only for the health and safety of its patients, but for the communities it serves. To help avoid barriers in scheduling, nurse visits for age-appropriate vaccinations are also offered at some WellSpan offices in addition to providing those services at regularly scheduled well-child checks.

Schuurman noted that optimal effect of current vaccinations depends upon completion of each series on the recommended schedule.

Recommended immunizations for newborn through late teens and older

Keeping students safe through variety of learning dynamics

As schools have made various recommendations and set different models of learning for the upcoming year, WellSpan primary care providers offered some health and safety tips in the face of uncertainty.

As children may have previously been sent to school with a mild cough, runny nose and other common upper respiratory symptoms, that cannot continue during the current pandemic since those symptoms relate to coronavirus.

Schuurman noted that providing on-site education in our local schools hinge upon symptom monitoring and a willingness to keep a student home who is under the weather.

He recommends:

  • Parents take temperatures and run through a symptom checklist that includes checking for a sore throat, coughing or runny nose every morning to determine whether something may be “off” with their child
  • A proactive plan by parents for alternative care arrangements in case their student develops symptoms of an illness

Virtual learning is different than traditional in-person learning and brings different challenges.

While any successful student relies in part upon parental engagement and reinforcement of concepts learned in school, the role of parents becomes even more important with virtual learners.

“Many students are not self-motivated and will require support, encouragement and redirection at home in order to keep up with their classes,” Schuurman explained.

And while Schuurman has been known to read to children during wellness visits, he also encourages parents to do so with young children since studies have shown that whether or not a child reads for pleasure is more likely to determine how well he or she does in school than either social or economic background.

Offices across the WellSpan network participate in Reach Out and Read, a national program recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which helps promote early literacy and school readiness.

Some recommendations for students engaged in virtual learning include:

  • Support students who may not be self-motivated with encouragement and redirection at home to keep up with their classes
  • Frequent breaks for physical activity, both during and between their online classes
  • Arrange a time of physical activity part way through the day – ¬especially for younger students – to provide an outlet for their physical energy and help them stay engaged through their lessons
  • A healthy snack in addition to lunch through the day should also be encouraged

How parents can recognize signs of depression in their children?

The uncertainty of when or even if COVID-19 is going to go away and the multiple disruptions to a child’s typical routine can contribute to depression. While many children can be remarkably resilient through this time, others may not handle all of these disruptions well, and parents should be aware of the telltale signs of depression.

Depression is more common among adolescents but can occur even in preschool children. Symptoms may include:

  • A persistently bad mood or sadness
  • Loss of interest in activities that had been previously enjoyable
  • Feelings of worthlessness, low energy, difficulty with concentration or fluctuations in appetite or sleep needs

Schuurman says while we all have a bad day here and there, kids who display concerning symptoms for a couple of weeks may be struggling with depression.

If symptoms persist, contact your child’s primary care provider who has additional tools available to help you identify and treat depression.

He added that as parents, there are several things that can be done to reduce the risk of depression in our kids and to help them through it including:

  • Talk with kids openly about their uncertainty, struggles and worries
  • Challenge negative thoughts about themselves
  • Stay engaged with your children by playing games together and making plans to achieve new goals
  • Stay active together as regular exercise has been repeatedly shown to improve mood

Beyond addressing growth and development at any age, WellSpan primary care providers continue to speak with school-aged children about screen time, peer pressure, healthy relationship and career plans.