Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church


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Back to School During a Pandemic

Posted by Albert Hergenroeder, MD on


I am Palmer is a series of articles written by parishioners at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church about their experiences in the time of COVID-19. With a close proximity to the Texas Medical Center and Rice University, the Palmer community has a unique insight into the halls of hospitals and laboratories. In this series, we will hear from a research pharmacy technician, an epidemiologist, an elder care professional, an ER doctor, and doctor parents, all serving in different ways on the front lines of this virus.

I am an adolescent medicine specialist and I take care of teenagers with a variety of problems. Over the last few months I have seen teens struggle with the lack of structure that school attendance provides. As a result, many are going to sleep after midnight into the early morning hours and don’t wake up until late morning and early afternoon. These poor sleep patterns when persistent over weeks to months will cause fatigue in any person, and in teens with anxiety or depression, they may cause worsening symptoms.  Teens with weight related problems also do not do well with this type of schedule.  These are a few examples of why teens need to be back in school.  Yet, is it safe in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Local school districts have announced return-to-school dates with a variety of plans for the fall semester, including the choice between remote and in-person learning options. What should parents do?

First, parents should be confident that school environments follow the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines regarding social distancing. Possible strategies include:  

  • Schools should use desk spacing
  • Staggered class release times to avoid hallway crowding
  • Rotation of teachers among classes instead of students
  • One-way hallways
  • Elimination of lockers
  • Staggered and separated lunch periods, and
  • Using outdoor spaces as much as possible.

While ISDs may be considering all the above measures and more, many have not shared all the details about how the CDC guidelines for returning to school will be achieved throughout their districts.  That information would help parents make a decision about having their teens return to school.  In some cases, schools may want to implement the appropriate changes to achieve social distancing but they may be handicapped without increased resources, such as adequate space and personnel to safely accommodate large numbers of students in-person. Measures that will optimize everyone’s safety, even in the face of such challenges, include:

Having children get the influenza vaccine when it becomes available in the fall; influenza virus causes infection that looks just like COVID-19  

Mask wearing, hand washing and cleaning surfaces with EPA-approved disinfectants, or if not available, diluted bleach or 70 percent alcohol at school 

Screening students, teachers and staff for evidence of COVID-19 infection daily at entry into the building.

Parents have a variety of unique considerations as they make decisions about their children going to school this year. Some, for example, have teens who may have chronic illnesses that would be worsened if they were infected with COVID-19.  They are also considering the health of all family members, especially older adults who are more susceptible to manifesting severe symptoms than children and teens.  Finally, Houston and Texas are setting records for COVID -19 infections, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths. In the short term, it seems prudent to consider online school until the pandemic starts to clearly recede. 

Thank you for the chance to give my perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic.