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Students of Delhi Private School in Sharjah on the first day of school after summer vacation on Sunday. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: As thousands of students resume regular school in the UAE, there is considerable relief among parents and the school authorities regarding life getting back to normality.

However, students who returned to their classrooms on Sunday, after a considerable long gap, could be vulnerable to infections and illnesses. Paediatricians and nutritionists are cautioning mothers to be vigilant about whether their children are getting adequate sleep, hydration, nutrition and physical exercise to maintain high level of immunity and good health.

Anxiety among parents about infections

It’s the same for toddlers going to school for the first time where they are vulnerable to exposure to different kinds of digestive or respiratory infections. Also, they take time to build their immunity to frequent infections.

Dr Abhijeet Trivedi, specialist, Paediatrics and Neonatology, Aster Hospital, Mankhool, said: “I have many mothers who have come to me with children in the age group of six to ten years, They are anxious and have some typical queries which are as follows :

• I feel nervous sending my children to school.

• What precautions should we take to prevent infections?

• Any medicine or multivitamin to continue?

• Should we vaccinate children against COVID-19 before sending them to school?

COVID-19 protocol will protect against other viral infections

It is natural for parents to worry, especially about younger children, but Dr Puneet Wadhwa, specialist paediatrician at Prime Hospital, Dubai, explained: “Schools will be following strict protocols of wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, using hand sanitisers and being vaccinated. These will not only help against COVID-19, but also against all viral infections.”

Dr Puneet Wadhwa

Dr Wadhwa said that children did not need multi-vitamins to strengthen their immunity.

Sufficient sleep, nutrition and physical activity best immune builders

Dr Wadhwa said that children did not need multi-vitamins to strengthen their immunity. “A balanced and nutritious diet, eight to ten hours of sleep, good hydration and physical activity will help children healthy. Currently, owing to online learning, children’s routines have been disrupted. Some were sleeping late, getting up late and had too much screen time due to online learning. Coming back to school will help mothers regularise their children’s routine and that will be a great immunity booster.”

Top infections to worry about

Once children meet in groups in school they need to be vigilant about avoiding general infections. Just as toddlers have a tendency to contract infections in the first year after they begin school, building immunity requires them to have exposure to viruses and bacteria where their antibodies are activated and their body regains overall strength. Returning to school after a long gap could trigger such immunity-building in toddlers. However, if mothers are careful to provide good food and other factors to children, their health will remain robust. Mothers can be vigilant about tell-tale signs of some basic infections.

Dr Abhijeet Trivedi

Dr Trivedi said that younger children in primary sections were more vulnerable to infections as they had been away from school for long.

Dr Trivedi said that younger children in primary sections were more vulnerable to infections as they had been away from school for long. “Mothers need to look out for symptoms of infections such as:

• Viral illnesses that trigger cough, cold, fever.

• Other bacterial infections that can infect the respiratory tract such as Streptococcal throat.

• Eye infections such as conjunctivitis.

• In rare cases, hand, foot and mouth disease.”

General vaccination schedules

Children in any case, will be following the school immunisation calendar as per their age. Those above ten years will require their DPT booster. The influenza vaccine will be available by September end or October and inoculation to protect against influenza will be helpful in not contracting other respiratory diseases. Dr Wadhwa explained: “The influenza vaccine is recommended for children with asthma and other respiratory vulnerabilities. Taking the vaccine will ensure the child is protected from the influenza virus. While this does not give protection against any other virus, it is a well-known fact that when a child is down with flu, his or her respiratory system is more vulnerable to contracting any other virus. Therefore, it is important that parents make sure they have updated their child’s immunisation calendar.”

Mental health matters

With a change in routine, children are likely to get stressed about leaving home and adapting themselves to more rigid school schedules. Mental health experts at Abu Dhabi Health Services (Seha) have advised parents to help children get slowly acclimatised to this.

Dr Doaa Barakat

Dr Doaa Barakat, consultant, Child Psychiatry, Al Ain Hospital, shared important tips on this. “Adopting a daily routine is very important for children, especially as they get used to being back at school. Children have become accustomed to different routines and study patterns during the past two years and so both parents and teachers need to be patient with children as they adapt to another ‘new normal’.

"The first couple of weeks might seem difficult as their entire routine right from bedtime to lunchtime will become more rigid. Students in junior and secondary levels may be able to adapt quicker as they would be resetting to an old routine, one they were familiar with. However, some children in primary and kindergarten will be attending in-person school for the first time and might take longer to adapt. Open and frequent communication between parents and teachers is advised to make sure your child is acclimating to in-person learning to the best of their ability. Teachers must guide students and break down the syllabus into shorter lessons with frequent breaks and activities, rewarding students who are abiding by the rules and regulations,” elaborated Dr Barakat

Visual and ENT support

Dr Hisham Zidan

Given that children nowadays spend 80 per cent of their awake time looking at lighted screens and using headphones for online learning, doctors have cautioned that children may developed hearing or visual deficiencies. Dr Hisham Zidan, ENT specialist physician, Al Towayya Children’s Specialty Center, Ambulatory Healthcare Services, said: “We recommend parents bring in their children for ENT examinations during the first week of school. Children have been attending school virtually for the past two years with hours in front of the screen and with headphones on their ears. We must examine youngsters to ensure there is no short or long-term damage to their ears.”

Oral hygiene

Dental health and oral hygiene of children who were at home and had accessibility to sweets, fizzy drinks and fast food, is also circumspect. Now that children go back to a regular school routine, dentists recommend a thorough oral cavity examination.

Dr Bakr Akram Al-Alousi, dentist, Al Towayya Children’s Specialty Center, Ambulatory Healthcare Services, said: “Parents must make sure that children as young as one-year old visit their paediatric dentist for regular checkups as dental health is vital to a child’s overall wellbeing. Dental issues can affect students’ ability to concentrate in class and may be a reason for missing school.

Dr Bakr Akram Al-Alousi

"Both parents and teachers must remind children about the importance of dental hygiene — brushing their teeth after meals and avoiding soda and candy, and replacing them with fruit, milk and vegetables. However, it is important to not drink milk before sleeping as lactose is a sugar and sugar should be avoided before bed.”

Tips to keep your child’s immunity strong:

• Make sure your child is well-rested. A minimum of eight to ten hours of sleep will ensure healing and kick-start the immune system.

• Good hydration is essential, especially since the mercury is still high and heat exposure can cause sunstrokes.

• Inclusion of large portion of fruit, vegetables, proteins, dairy in your child’s diet is important as amino acids found in complex carbs and proteins in dairy products can help strengthen immunity.

• Make sure your child has a good dose of citrus fruit such as grapes, oranges, lemon, which are rich in Vitamin C and help improve immune response.

• Make sure to replenish their multivitamins and enzymes through natural nutrition. For instance, Vitamin A found from liver, sweet potatoes, carrots and zinc found in meat and sea foods contribute to immunity, while Vitamin E is present in nuts and vegetable oil plays a vital role in building immunity. Dairy products are also a good source of calcium for healthy bones.

• Include yoghurt, kefir and other such products in your child’s diet to replenish the gut microbiome with probiotics that can greatly improve immunity.

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Tell-tale symptoms to look out for:

While schools will be vigilant against COVID-19, parents are advised to look out for signs of fatigue and exhaustion. Other symptoms to looks for include:

• Fever

• Sore throat

• Cough, Running nose

• Shortness of breath

• Loose motions

• Headache, Myalgia

Precautions to take in COVID-19 times:

• Take your vaccination as per guidelines.

• Wear a mask.

• Maintain social distancing.

• Avoid group and cluster gatherings.

•Clean and disinfect — include frequently-touched items such as doorknobs, faucets, keyboards, tablets.

• Regular hand-washing even in schools.

• Stay home if sick.