By CRISTINA JANNEY
The team at the University of Kansas Health Center gave tips on Wednesday about how parents and teachers can deal with anxiety about school starting in the fall.
Guests were Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson and Psychologist Greg Nawalanic.
“We know that students who are not in school certainly suffer, but we can’t open and not have safety. Our foremost concern is as it relates to students, families and staff,” Watson said.
Nawalanic said he wishes he had some magic trick to alleviate anxiety about returning to school, but he doesn’t.
Parents’ attitudes toward their children returning to school may differ based on their experiences. A set of parents who has a healthy child who has never been seriously ill is going to feel differently, than parents who had to see a child in a hospital bed for a respiratory illness, Nawalanic said.
“I think one of the biggest things we need to be doing right now is be understanding of the different perspectives,” he said. “I think people see the validity in the desire to get back to school because we don’t want to end up falling behind by a year or two years.”
Nawalanic has children at home. His wife has been working from home and home-schooled the children during the shutdown. It was difficult for both her and the kids, he said.
He suggests trying to be understanding, getting as much information as you can and trusting the system.
He urged parents to start doing practice mask runs during which kids wear masks while doing something they enjoy at home.
The health system shared the video below of a child encouraging other children to wear masks.
“We want to prepare our kids to best be able to cope and deal with this as possible,” Nawalanic said. “That starts now rather than Day One of school when you shove this foreign thing on their face and say, ‘Go for it!’ ”
A news conference audience member asked Watson about what will trigger the different phases of learning in each county.
Watson said that will be determined by the COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates, and conversations with local health officials.
“If that is low risk, you can be more on-site,” Watson said. “When that starts to be a fairly high number, the recommendation is to be more of a hybrid model and then when it is brick red, then you are going to move to a more remote model.”
Brick red is referring to counties or states with the highest number of cases.
Watson noted some counties in Kansas have no reported cases and others have cases going up dramatically.
One teacher online asked if the state is going to provide personal protective equipment for teachers.
Money from the federal government went to the state, which was distributed to counties in the form of SPARK funds. A committee in Ellis County that included school officials recently met to discuss how those funds would be distributed, but no decisions on fund allocation have been made.
Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, also wears protective eyewear when he is visiting with patients, and he recommended those to teachers. He said the eye protection can be purchased at hardware stores or an online retailer.
Dr. Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at The University of Kansas Health System, said cloth masks or surgical masks are fine. You don’t have to have an N-95 mask. The exception would be school nurses, who probably need an N-95 mask.
Another audience member, a school nurse, asked what can be done to support teacher mental health.
Nawalanic said,”These teachers have such an emotional investment in their students. They didn’t get to close right with their last cohort of students. That is something they are carrying forward into this year …”
“Summer was supposed to be reprieve — ‘Let’s regroup and reset and everything will be better,’ we all thought back then. Now we see that it’s another story.”
He encourages teachers to do deep-breathing exercises, exercise, get away from the noise, and know there is only so much you can do.
“Teachers are caught in that frying pan of indecision,” Nawalanic said. “Like Dr. Watson said they are being tasked with coming up with three different plans for what might be for when school starts.”
He said the best message he can give is to not obsess, although he acknowledged that is hard. Make sure you are carving out time away from the media and not thinking about school at all.
“Do things in your bubble that refill your pitcher of wellness,” he said.
He encouraged parents and community members to have kind words for their educators.
“Kudos. Keep up the good fight, teachers. We really appreciate everything you do and thanks,” he said.
Watson said teachers are the true heroes and he included counselors and school nurses, principals and support staff into that group.
Watson’s own daughter is an art teacher and is pregnant with Watson’s first grandchild.
“She is torn between two things,” Watson said. “She misses her kids greatly. She knows that they need her and connect with her. What drove her to be a teacher was that connection. She also coaches and she misses that connection. And also she’s fearful.
“She is fearful for her daughter and the pregnancy.”
Watson encouraged community members to avoid social media and to become involved in their school districts and help craft a plan that will result in safe schools for children and their communities.
Stites tried to assure teachers that medical staff working on the floors with COVID-19 patients who wear goggles and surgical masks have not gotten sick.
Stites and Hawkinson shared the video below from a local freezer Friday to show how masks cut down on the particles transferred from one person to another when we talk or breathe.
“It’s a big statement, but it is also meant to offer you some security,” he said. “As we who have been on the front lines and you as educators go to be on the front lines, we have tested this and it works.”
Hawkinson’s advice for teachers — If you can reduce that time that you are with a student (less than 10 minutes) and both you and the student are wearing masks, you can reduce your risk of getting the disease.
Stities said a vaccine could be available as soon as October or November, but there is no guarantee that will happen. He said it is good to hope, but we can’t center policies around something that may not happen in that time frame.
Nawalanic said parents need to think of this as a chain being only as strong as its weakest link.
“If we can’t get adults to wear their masks right, or at all, it’s difficult to expect that to trickle down to our kids to do it right,” he said. “Teachers, I have the utmost faith in you to be creative.”
Nawalanic suggested games to promote mask wearing — maybe who can keep their mask on longest or who has the coolest mask or encourage children to decorate a mask at home.