Parents and students must be prepared for unexpected changes this academic year as classes resume during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Allison Schuessler, a pediatrician with Geisinger.
"It's important for schools to be nimble and flexible," said Schuessler. "The safety of our kids going back to school will depend on the disease burden in the community. That will depend on the school district we're talking about. If the school in that area has a low positive test rate and a small amount of people given the size of the population, then it will be a little safer and easier to do more in-person teaching."
Communities with a higher disease burden should consider remote learning, she said.
"Being mindful of that is important. It may change," she said. "Parents should be allowed to have the flexibility to make the decision that is right for their family."
Schuessler said parents, students and staff should follow the guidelines recommended by the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means handwashing before and after eating and using the restrooms; social distancing; and wearing masks if the child is old enough.
"A lot of this will start at home," said Schuessler. "Parents can model good behavior with their kids and talk about why it's important to keep our friends, community and families safe."
Younger children may not understand, but the more parents discuss it with them or model the behavior, the more the children will pay attention, she said.
Parents should monitor their child for symptoms and they should stay home if they do. Discuss treatment with a pediatrician, said Schuessler.
Children and teenagers may also be experiencing stress and anxiety. Schuessler said parents should watch for changes in behaviors or loss of appetite.
Children should be made to feel safe and loved, know they have the ability to talk about what they're going through and parents should reach out to pediatricians if their child is struggling with mental health needs, she said.
In terms of keeping a child healthy in general, Schuessler said children should continue with regular exercise, activities and healthy diets.
Allison Hess, the vice president of health and wellness at Geisinger, said the hospital system has been working with the school districts over the last few months to collaborate on re-opening plans and offer support in trying to understand everyone's needs. A variety of resources are available, including a digital toolkit, reopening guidelines and clinical expertise.
"Geisinger historically has always been heavily invested in the community whether it’s through health and wellness and community organization," said Hess. "Especially during a pandemic, it’s vital to do our part to stop the spread and educate and support our community partners, including schools. It's really in the best interest of all of us."
Hess reiterated Schuessler's statement that schools must be flexible. Experts are still learning about COVID-19 and new guidelines and developments are happening every week, she said.
"This is not just the school's responsibility, it's the whole community's responsibility," said Hess. "Schools are taking this seriously. They're focused on the health and safety of the students, but they're only one piece. It's important for students after the school day to continue best practices."
Hess said she has been impressed with school districts' efforts in seeking professional guidance.
Milton Area Superintendent Cathy Keegan praised Geisinger and Evangelical Community Hospital.
"A shout out goes to Geisinger and Evangelical medical centers for their commitment and support to our local school districts," said Keegan. "We cannot thank these organizations enough for everything they have done during our health and safety planning processes. Allison Hess, vice president of health innovations at Geisinger Medical Center deserves recognition for her ongoing support and commitment to the wellness of the Milton Area School District school community."
Geisinger has shown a strong commitment to the Milton Area School District, she said.
"Through combined efforts, we are committed to keeping our community healthy, strong and thriving," she said. "The thrust of the work is to not just prevent the spread of COVID 19 but also educate 2,000 students on how to best mitigate and respond to the pandemic when not in school. Educate to mitigate is key."
Other district superintendents said they are grateful for having two quality health care networks in the Valley.
"We have been fortunate to have high-quality health organizations in our area that have been providing guidance to our local schools," said Shamokin Area Superintendent Chris Venna. "We certainly are hopeful to continue to receive more information as it becomes available. However, we understand the circumstances and that sometimes information is not readily available."
Line Mountain Superintendent Dave Campbell said everyone is trying to protect the children.
"The administrators around the area that we have collaborated with feel blessed to have high-quality health organizations in our area that have been providing guidance to our local schools," said Campbell.