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Adjusting to Back to School While Prioritizing Family Well-being

E John Wherry
E. John Wherry, PhD

Fresh notebooks, new pens, crisp highlighters, and favorite backpacks all point to the start of school. If this brings back feelings of anticipation, excitement, and maybe a touch of dread — you’re certainly not alone. As we are learning to live with COVID-19 and the emergence of new variants — while having to contend with monkeypox and its looming implications — many families can feel warry about the start of a new school year.

But there are ways to help make the transition easier while prioritizing health. E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer Brady, MA, RD, LDN, associate director of Employee Benefits and Wellness at Penn Medicine, weighed in on how to take on the new school year amidst the continued pandemic.

When it comes to COVID-19, what should parents and guardians pay attention to with the start of the school year?

A parent sits with their child doing homework at a table

The good news, says Wherry, is that the average case of COVID-19 for those who have been vaccinated is very mild, doesn’t involve intense medical care, and resolves itself at home. That said, it is important to be mindful that COVID-19 is still here, Wherry warns. Currently, about 320 people a day are dying from COVD-19 in the United States (mainly unvaccinated, elderly, and immunocompromised individuals) and people are still suffering with long COVID. However, what was a terrifying infection a few years ago is now more akin to an inconvenient cold or flu for most vaccinated people, Wherry says.

Even though the severity of the average case has diminished, the inconvenience of getting COVID-19 has its ramifications. If a child contracts COVID-19, there is the risk that other children and adults in the household will get it — impacting absences from school and work. When it impacts working adults, it could mean loss of income and financial strain.

What are the essential tools for keeping children safe from COVID-19?

Wherry points to vaccines and boosters being critical to getting COVID-19 under control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone who is eligible should stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines, including getting their boosters. For children, they recommend COVID-19 vaccines for everyone 6 months and older and boosters for everyone 5 years and older, if eligible. If you’re unsure, use the CDC’s COVID-19 booster tool to learn if and when your child or teen can get boosters to stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, now that the bivalent booster has been approved, Wherry strongly encourages everyone who is eligible to get their shot this fall.

Masking also continues to be a great way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, it may be hard to convince children to mask up at school as many of the previous COVID-19 related restrictions have been lifted. “We cannot ignore the emotional toll from trying to control your own personal situation in public spaces,” says Wherry. “On the flip side, if we’re doing the best we can with the tools at our disposal — masking, hand washing/sanitizing, vaccines/boosters, and testing — there’s a strong chance that you can minimize the severity of any sickness you may happen to get.”

How will monkeypox affect the school year and what is the best line of defense?

A teacher holding a book in front of a classroom of students who are raising their hands
Wherry asserts that there is no real major threat of children contracting monkeypox, though rare cases have been reported. As a best practice for overall good health and hygiene, hand washing is simple yet incredibly effective. However, if you think your child was exposed to monkeypox, watch out for lesions to develop on the hands. In the meantime, you shouldn’t be concerned about monkeypox unless symptoms appear.

While both are infectious diseases, monkeypox and COVID-19 are very different — for one, the monkeypox virus is not nearly as contagious. And when it comes to school concerns, the risk of monkeypox upending another school year is extremely low. The true risk of contracting monkeypox is thousands of times lower than it is for contracting COVID-19. Part of this has to do with how the diseases are transmitted — there are distinct differences as monkeypox is spread through direct and prolonged contact and COVID-19 from the transmission of respiratory droplets and aerosols.

What healthy choices help bolster the immune system and keep energy up?

As a registered dietician, Brady notes there are many ways to strengthen your immune system. For one, don’t “sleep on” sleep — research shows that sleep helps your body fight off viruses and other infections. 

Additionally, the tried-and-true advice to maintain a healthy diet helps as well. This means consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. A healthy diet not only helps your immune system but prevents disease and optimizes overall health. And getting exercise helps with building strength and good cardiovascular system and gives the immune system a boost too.

Lastly, don’t forget to incorporate healthy habits into your day. Get a good night’s sleep, pack healthy snacks and meals, and add some intentional movement into your day.

With busy schedules how can people keep wellness and sanity in check?

One of Wherry’s suggestions is to shift your mindset from reactionary mode to thoughtfully preemptive. Taking proactive steps to protect yourself, your family, and your community against COVID-19 (as well as other sicknesses such as the flu and colds) should alleviate a lot of stress.

For vaccines, aim to stay on schedule. Plan to get a COVID-19 booster when it would provide the greatest benefit — indoor gatherings and celebrations. If you know you’re going to be away for the holidays and there are parties in your future, schedule your booster for a month or two before you’re set to be away.

Additionally, news consumption can impact one’s wellness in many ways — beyond doom-scrolling, continued news intake about today’s infectious diseases can lead to more confusion, stress, and anxiety. Wherry and Brady recommend educating yourself, but with caution. Following qualified experts from organizations such as the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health is your best bet. Don’t take one media report as the defining opinion or takeaway — base your decisions on the rolling average of what you’re reading and seeing.

Along with simplifying your news intake, simplifying your preventative care routine with healthy habits can help ease a family back into the school year. This includes staying up to date with all vaccines, washing hands, masking (especially in large, unknown vaccination status crowds), sleeping well and exercising, and testing at home (if feasible). And if you or your family members get sick, strongly consider staying home to prevent the spread to others.

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Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of personal medical advice.

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