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Doctor on reopening of schools: 'If we're going to try it, now is the time'

Dr. Mundeep Kainth explains how parents can prepare

Dr. Mundeep Kainth explains how parents can prepare and what they should emphasize to their children before sending them back into classrooms. Credit: Chris Ware

Long Island school districts are preparing to restart in-person classes with regulations aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, such as spacing desks further apart and requiring masks.

But many parents wonder whether their kids will be safe if they choose in-person classes over remote learning, and want to know how to help keep their children healthy.

For answers, Newsday talked with Dr. Mundeep Kainth, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, and Dr. Leonard Krilov, chief of pediatrics at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola and an infectious disease specialist.

Both have school-age children: Kainth, 5- and 7-year-old boys, and Krilov, a 10-year-old daughter.

Q: How risky is it for children to attend school at this point?

KRILOV: It is not no-risk, but it’s low-risk. There is also a risk to not sending our children to school. You’re risking a loss of intellectual and social growth and development. If we’re going to try it, now is the time, when the [infection] rates are low.

Q: Are you sending your own children to school for in-person instruction?

KAINTH: It's a question I'm commonly asked, and when I tell people yes, the answer I get is, "That makes me feel better about sending my own children." But I have very specific reasons, and those reasons may not apply to everybody. Some kids might not be able to go to school and come back home to a grandparent or to someone who might be high-risk, like someone who has a chronic illness.

Q: How do you tell children about the risks of COVID-19 in school? How do you encourage them to be cautious without frightening them too much?

KAINTH: There are the older kids who are quite aware about what happened in March and April, and understand fully why they were kept home. They realized that there is a virus, there is an infection going around and it's making people sick. 

For younger children, a different version of the same message: "That just like you get sick with a cold or a cough or a fever, we all want to make sure that doesn't spread and doesn't make other kids sick. So we might have to close schools or classrooms. That's just because we're trying to keep our friends safe and we don't want anyone to get very ill."

KRILOV: We’re going to get into cold and flu season. The symptoms overlap [with COVID-19]. If they're both around, it may not be readily apparent which is the cause [of the symptoms]. With a lot of the even "minor" colds, children are going to have to tell their parents when they’re not feeling well and not try to mask it because there’s a fun activity they’re looking forward to. We’re going to have to be a bit more rigid [in keeping children home from school].

Q: What should I look for in picking out a mask for my child to wear at school?

KRILOV: There is a suggestion that the surgical masks are a little bit better, but cloth masks have the advantage of being able to be washed and reused. It’s important that it fits right. They should probably have an extra one in their desks or in their backpacks in case one gets soiled or dirty.

KAINTH: You need to get your kids used to wearing masks for long periods of time, and this is a good time to do it, when they may just be playing at home: just keeping a mask on them and seeing how long it can stay on without them needing to take it off, and incrementally increasing that amount of time, so that they're used to having large chunks of time with their masks on.

Q: What should I tell my children about how to practice good hygiene at school?

KRILOV: Not sharing food or drinks, that would have been good pre-COVID. But even more now. The issues of personal space. Now we talk about physical distancing when feasible. General hand hygiene of covering your coughs and sneezes, preferably into your elbow instead of your hand if you can.

KAINTH: I think it's important to equip your kids with hand sanitizer and make sure that it is replenished when they need it. Frequent hand washing is really quite important.

Q: Some hospital employees take off their clothes immediately upon getting home, throw them in the washing machine and then shower before having any contact with family members. Or at least some did that during the peak of COVID-19 cases. Is that a good idea for children returning home from school?

KRILOV: I think it may be overkill. That’s certainly what I did during the peak. We have liberalized that with the rates low. I don’t necessarily shower immediately as soon as I come home at this point.

With kids, the biggest part of it is hand hygiene. When you greet them at the door, or at the bus, or if you’re picking them up, in the car, you might want to use an antiseptic soap or wipe, and then have them wash their hands with soap and water when they get home.

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