OMA Spotlight on Health

Back to School with Middlesex London Associate Medical Officer Dr. Alex Summers

September 04, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 26
OMA Spotlight on Health
Back to School with Middlesex London Associate Medical Officer Dr. Alex Summers
Show Notes Transcript

This September back to school will look different for all children. Featuring Dr. Alex Summers, Associate Medical Officer of the Middlesex London Health, discussing how Public Health is working with school boards to ensure the safest return to classes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

OMA Podcast Episode 26 - Back to School with Middlesex London Associate Medical Officer Dr. Alex Summers

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Voice-over: In this podcast the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us.

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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan, and I’m the Director of Media Relations and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association.

Dr. Alex Summers: I'm Dr. Alex Summers. I'm the Associate Medical Officer of Health at the Middlesex-London Health Unit and a Specialist in Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

Flanagan: And we're here today to talk about back-to-school. 

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Flanagan: So, how are you working with local school boards and schools to ensure a safe return for students this fall?

Dr. Summers: We always spend time working with our school board partners to make sure that these schools that we send our kids to are safe spaces that promote and protect their health. But obviously, in light of a pandemic, we need to look at some different things this year. 

But we're fortunate. We've got good relationships, even at the school level, with principals and teachers, all the way up to the school board level. And we've been working with them all summer to prepare for the possibility of going back to school. The rates of COVID-19 in our communities and in our province are as low as they have been since the beginning of the pandemic, which means that now is the time for us to work towards getting back to school. 

School is such an important part of growing up; not only about learning how to conjugate a verb, but also about learning how to engage with the world around you, and to engage with the kids in your class and the teachers that you get to meet. So, in order for that to happen, we've been providing our school boards and our schools with some basic principles around how to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Fortunately, we've learned a lot over the last number of months about how COVID transmits, and therefore we now know what types of principles can help prevent the transmission.

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Flanagan: What are some of the unique regional challenges or circumstances that you're advising on in Middlesex-London?

Dr. Summers: Here in Middlesex-London, we do have quite low community transmission. That's a really good thing. We also know, though, that we had high case numbers in April. So, we cannot simply go back to the way things were before the pandemic. The potential for transmission exists here, despite our rates being very low. 

The other challenges that we have to face is that we have a variety of different ways in which people get to school in our community—some people walk, some people get driven by a parent, other people take the bus. We also have schools that are of different sizes and different shapes. We've got lots of unique things that we need to adapt.

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Flanagan: What should parents and guardians be doing to prepare for their child's return to school? 

Dr. Summers: The really important thing for us to remember as we return to school is that going back to school every year can be both an exciting and scary time. Just like any other year, this year will be exciting and scary. But of course, it's going to be a little bit extra exciting and a little bit extra scary because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we also need to remember that the first week back at school is always a bit of a challenge. With routines all over the place, dropping off at school on any given day for the first day of the year is a bit chaotic, and it's going to be chaotic again this year. But what you may recall from last year or previous years is that, eventually, we do get into the swing of things, and that'll happen this year as well.

So, a few things that we're telling parents as they get back to school. Number one is to start to get back into routine. So, start to set those bedtimes back to where they were when people were going to school. Get used to packing those lunches, so that the morning doesn't seem like a rush.

It's also important that we talk about the changes that people are going to see when they go back to school. It's going to look a little bit different; you'll be wearing a mask, you'll be trying to do your best to keep the distance from others, and you may actually be doing some online learning, even while in the classroom or, of course, at home sometimes.

It's important that we also focus on the positives. Although going back to school is going to be a bit intimidating, you're also going to be able to see some more people, see some of your friends. And we know that, for kids, it has been a long and probably lonely time for the last little while.

It's also important to practice some of those new habits that you're going to rely on when you go back to school, like washing hands, like wearing a mask, like putting on and taking off that mask, making sure that you're coughing and sneezing safely into your arm, and also being able to recognize when you come too close to someone. 

And lastly, it's important to talk a little bit about what it feels like to be sick, so that you can get your child to tell you. Walk through what some of those symptoms might be, or even get the sense in your child that if they're not feeling well, they're going to tell you. That's really important, so that they can protect themselves and everybody else in their class.

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Flanagan: How important is it that parents really have open conversations with their kids about these changes?

Dr. Summers: Being open about these changes is critical. Life has a number of surprises that we can't predict, and, for a kid, it's important to have surety and stability where they can. 

We know that school is going to be different. We know that teachers are going to still be figuring out how to teach in the context of a pandemic. We know that parents are going to feel some stress when they go to school, and kids pick up on that. 

Your kids are going to need some reassurance to understand some of the stress that you're going to be feeling as a parent. They are going to want to know where that stress is coming from. And they're going to want to know that it's something that they can also speak to you about. Together, when we talk about those types of anxieties about what is understandably a scary thing; going to school in a pandemic. This isn't something that we were ready for. But when we can talk about it openly, we can share our anxieties, and we can start to see the positives and see the solutions, too. 

We really have learned so much about how COVID-19 is transmitted. We've learned so much about what works to prevent transmission, and we’re going to be able to invest and incorporate those learnings as we go back into the fall. 

And so, obviously, some of these concepts that we are trying to teach our kids about are really complicated, and a kid doesn't need to know the details of exactly how COVID transmits. What they do need to know is that everybody is watching and is waiting to support and protect one another throughout all of this. That'll make a big difference, and having that transparency and open discussion is a key part of that.

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Flanagan: What signs and symptoms should parents be looking out for in their kids? 

Dr. Summers: COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, which means it's an illness that affects the lungs and the respiratory tract. However, we particularly see in kids that sometimes the symptoms are beyond what you might see with a respiratory illness. And that's true for other respiratory illnesses as well.

Kids, when they get things like the influenza virus, or even if they get a common cold, don't always have the conventional runny nose, cough, or difficulty breathing. They sometimes have gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea or vomiting. And that's the case with COVID-19 as well. 

The list of symptoms actually starts to get pretty long. And so, it can be a bit intimidating to a parent to think that they'd be able to recognize all of them. So, the big thing is picking up on whether or not your kid is feeling, quote/unquote, “their normal” or not.

And that's, always actually, the best barometer of how your kid is doing. Are they eating and drinking? Is their energy where it normally is? Are they acting like themselves? That's your first sign that it's time to ask a few more questions.

If a kid has a fever, a new or worsening cough, or is presenting in some degree of difficulty breathing, those are the big things that we need to watch out for. If your child also has a new onset of diarrhea or vomiting, that is another reason to really focus on keeping your child at home and considering visiting a medical professional or going to get a COVID test.

So, although the list of symptoms can get really long and kind of overwhelming, the big thing is, just always be mindful of whether or not your kid is acting themselves, and then going through those big ones: fever, shortness of breath that's new, a cough that is new, or diarrhea and/or vomiting.

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Flanagan: We know vaccinations are always important—regular childhood vaccinations plus flu vaccine. These are going to be even more important this year, is that correct?

Dr. Summers: As a public health physician, nothing gets me more excited than immunization. And, as we go into the fall, it's really important that parents and physicians and medical professionals out there remember that immunization is one of the reasons that we don't have to deal with pandemics all the time. 

Influenza vaccine is going to be available this fall as it is every year. And it's really important to go and get your flu shot and to take your kids to get their flu shot. Influenza vaccine is the most important thing you can do to prevent and protect yourself from influenza this year.  

It's also really important to recognize that some of our kids didn't get their Grade 7 vaccines this past spring, because, of course, schools were shut down because of the pandemic. 

Here in the Middlesex and London region, our health unit will be going back into the schools this September through to December to make sure that we catch up all the Grade 8s, and get the Grade 7s, who are getting their first dose of their Grade 7 vaccines, underway. 

But for families and physicians out there, make sure you check your vaccine calendar, make sure you check your child's vaccine records, to make sure that they are up to date. 

Getting yourself vaccinated is so important that I actually think COVID-19 just emphasizes how important immunization can be and will be. We are all hoping desperately that a COVID-19 vaccine will show up. But it's important to remember that we actually have some vaccines that are already here. Let's take advantage of them. Let's use them. Let's protect our communities.

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Flanagan: What's your advice to parents who are nervous or unsure about whether it's safe to send their child to school?

Dr. Summers: I really want to recognize that any parent would feel anxious this September, in the midst of what is scary and threatening, such as a pandemic. The number one concern you will have is for the health of that child, and that is a normal thing to be fretful about. 

As public health and as schools, we have dealt with outbreaks of infectious diseases in schools before, and we're actually really good at getting them under control. 

We've dealt with hepatitis A outbreaks here in Middlesex-London, we've dealt with pertussis outbreaks here in Middlesex-London, and we've managed them. We've managed them because we work really closely together. We try and communicate openly with parents; we try to get out there and make sure that we are doing what we need to do. And, as Public Health and as a Public Health physician, that's my expertise. 

It's also important to know that there will be cases of COVID-19 in schools; it's going to happen. But we also know that we can respond really quickly to it. 

We have to make sure we maximize physical distance, we have to wear masks, we have to wash hands, we have to stay home if we're sick. We have to do all of those things, but we also have to go and learn. 

For parents that are nervous out there, I get it. There are people out there who are working really, really hard to make sure that this is as safe as it can be. 

And even though you're going back to school, this doesn't mean that we start to socialize in the same way that we used to when we're not in school. It's what we do outside of the classroom, actually, that will make the biggest difference in reducing community transmission.

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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health.

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