patient advocacy

3 Ways Pediatricians Can Support Schools and Families in 2021

Just as in-person visits to the pediatrician are important, so is in-person learning. While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in uncertainty among many, it remains crucial for pediatricians to support families as children return to school by providing supportive care, mental health resources, vaccine and safety information, and by being a proactive resource for faculty, students, and staff.

Why the AAP Supports the Return to School

Pediatricians and academic professionals have long been colleagues in the care of children’s long term success and health. Along with academic benefits, when children can attend school in-person, they have access to social opportunities, nutritious meals, safe exercise, physical and speech therapies, and more. 

In their interim COVID-19 guidance, The American Academy of Pediatrics also states that there are important social inequalities that cause disparities among minorities that remote learning does not currently address: “Without adequate support for families to access [in person school] services, disparities will likely worsen, especially for children who are English language learners, children with disabilities, children living in poverty, and children who are Black, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native children.”

Pediatricians’ role in the community is vital to the success of return to school initiatives, both as a trusted advisor to families as well as a coordinator of care between a child’s school and home. In February 2021, the CDC also released guidance for K-12 schools to reopen while mitigating risks of spreading COVID-19.

Requirements for Safe School Measures

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The AAP states several methods in the interim guidance for safe school-opening measures. To the extent possible for your community, you can share this guidance with school officials to ensure safe procedures and policies for children. Some of these measures include, but are not limited to:

  • Appropriate PPE for faculty and staff, as well as face coverings for anyone entering the campus
  • Physical distancing measures
  • Appropriate sanitization and cleaning procedures
  • Symptom screening (for example, a parent checks for a fever at home and does not allow the child to attend in-person school that day)
  • Ventilation, including up to date HVAC systems and 

These measures are not only important during the necessary and ultimately ongoing conversations about safe school policies with local, state, and school officials. They are key tools in conversations pediatricians can have with pediatric practice staff, patient families, and other key community stakeholders. Honest and supportive communication can help answer questions, ease fears, and support the return to school that is so important for students’ success and well-being.

How to Support Transitions to In-Person Learning

For all children, but especially for children with learning disabilities, English language learners, or children who have experienced lapses in learning and/or visits to the pediatrician, the switch away from and then back to in-person learning can be a difficult transition. Here are 3 ways pediatricians can support kids, families, and schools as they adjust to these big changes together.

      1. Coordination of Care

Teachers and school staff are important witnesses to childrens’ day to day health. If a child displays symptoms of illness, signs of neglect, or difficulty learning or socializing, school professionals can coordinate care with pediatricians to address problems early, preventing the symptoms from worsening or a loss of the child’s development, physically, emotionally, or academically. 

Pediatricians can support schools in providing supportive care such as vision and hearing checks, as well as coordinating care with school nurses. Collaboration with school nursing staff is essential in caring for sick children throughout the typical school year, as well as preventing potential spread of COVID-19.

      2. Mental Health Resources

Related to coordination of care is the coordination of mental health resources. Anecdotally, many pediatric practices have noted a rise in their patients’ mental health care needs during the pandemic. 

During the transition to in-person learning, it’s crucial for both pediatricians and schools to provide appropriate mental health resources. For some communities, this could involve a school professional, and in others, the pediatrician’s office may be the main resource. For more information about pandemic mental health resources, see our previous post.

Populations to be aware of during transition include students with lapses in care/school attendance, students with previous diagnoses of mood disorders, students with disabilities, and students with a prior history of trauma. A supportive network, including schools and pediatric offices, can help get resources to patients in need.

      3. Community Support

Practices can offer widespread support to their communities by being an anchor of reliable and honest information and reassurance. Practices should maintain communication with key members of the effort to return to in-person learning, such as school nurses, administrators, local officials, school boards, and of course families.

Information Sharing

It’s important to balance patient/student privacy with information about potential COVID-19 spread. To learn more about the ways schools and practices are legally permitted to discuss an individual student’s COVID-19 case, please see this FAQ from the U.S. Department of Education.

Vaccines & Immunizations

At the time of this post’s writing, research is still underway for the development of a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, and the AAP’s interim guidance is that those who are eligible for a vaccine should receive it as their state’s vaccine rollout plans allow. In the meantime, it’s highly encouraged that everyone eligible for a flu vaccine receive one during the spring semester of 2021, especially prior to a school’s reopening.

The details of how pediatricians will coordinate with schools when a pediatric vaccine becomes available is unclear now, but will certainly be an important part of successful vaccination efforts. Until then, practices can engage in important discussions with families about vaccine safety.

Activities & Sports

Communities must weigh the costs and benefits of sports and other activities where children gather together. Pediatricians can help provide guidance for families, especially of children with certain conditions which increase their risk of severe illness, children with vulnerable family members, or children whose other health concerns affect the most appropriate guidance, such as in-person tutoring for a child with a learning disability.

Returning to school is essential for a child’s academic and personal development. When pediatricians work together with schools, they can make the transition safer, easier, and more successful for everyone. A return to school will likely also prove important to the health of pediatric practices, as sick visits, mental health resources, learning support services, and last but not least vaccinations. If you’re considering offering COVID-19 vaccinations, you might be interested in how to operate a drive-thru clinic. Check out our previous post below to learn how to start or improve upon a drive-thru clinic for vaccines, well checks, and almost anything else.

How to Open a Drive Thru Clinic at a Pediatric Practice

Allie Squires

Allie Squires is PCC's Marketing Content Writer and editor of The Independent Pediatrician. She holds a master's in Professional Writing from NYU.