Are You Ready for Back-to-School Season? Here’s a Health Checklist to Prepare Your Child for the Upcoming School Year

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

The new school year is just around the corner. For Chicago Public Schools students, that’s as soon as Monday.

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As students prepare to head back to school, it’s an opportunity to check on their health and help them establish healthy routines to set them up for a successful school year.

WTTW News asked pediatricians and physicians in the Chicago area to share what they think parents should keep in mind as their children head back to school.

Get Up to Date on Vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children catch up on routine childhood vaccinations for school, especially because many children missed health check-ups and recommended childhood vaccinations over the past few years.

“Vaccines are extensively researched, they’re safe and they’re effective,” said Dr. Nina Alfieri, an advanced general pediatrics and primary care physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “Especially in settings where children are around many other children, protecting your child with vaccination can really help them from getting sick from a vaccine-preventable illness.”

Required vaccinations for students attending school in Illinois include: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, rubella, mumps and more. Click here for immunization requirements for CPS students.

With the start of the respiratory virus season, medical providers also recommend parents to consider having their child get vaccinated against the flu and also receive the most updated COVID-19 booster.

A new COVID-19 booster is expected to be out around late September pending approval by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration.

Get Physical, Vision and Dental Exams

For the 2023-2024 school year, CPS requires a physical exam for students to be completed within 12 months prior to entering pre-K, kindergarten, sixth grade, ninth grade, and for any student entering CPS for the first time.

Vision exams are required for students attending a school in Illinois for the first time for any grade level. In CPS, vision exams are required for students entering kindergarten.

Dental exams are required for CPS students in kindergarten, second grade, sixth grade and ninth grade. Dental exams are due for CPS students in mid-May next year, unlike physical and vision exams that are due in the fall.

“A lot can change in a year, so I really encourage families to reach out in between visits if there’s new concerns,” Alfieri said.

Update Back-to-School Medical Forms

The back-to-school season is a good reminder for families to check in with physicians and the school about school medical forms, especially if there’s something special a student is going to need during the academic year such as an Individualized Education Program or a 504 plan.

“Usually at the annual physical, we’ll be able to update the school form to reflect the needs of the students,” said Dr. Elizabeth Portin, pediatrician and pediatric sports medicine physician at Rush University.

Examples of special considerations include if a child needs to bring an EpiPen to school for allergies, if a child has asthma and needs to have albuterol at the school or if a child needs to take medication during the school day, Portin said.

“Make sure that all of that is in place prior to the start of the school year and make sure that the faculty, the teachers and the student is aware of where that medication will be,” Portin said.

Set a Healthy Sleep Routine

Pediatricians recommend gradually working toward a more consistent routine and sleep schedule as a child approaches the start of the school year.

“If they are able to get in those routines, even before they start back to school, they’re already at an advantage,” said Dr. Hannah Chow-Johnson, pediatrician at Loyola University Medical Center.

Chow-Johnson recommends shutting off all electronics at night in order to achieve good sleep.

The AAP recommends children ages 3 to 5 years get 10-13 hours of sleep; children ages 6 to 12 years get 9-12 hours of sleep; and teenagers get 8-10 hours of sleep.

“Children’s brains, especially teenagers, require a lot of sleep in order to be able to do the mental processing tasks that we ask of them during the day, so whenever we say the recommended sleep time, people are usually surprised,” Alfieri said.

Prepare for School Sports

For students involved in sports that require a sports physical, Portin recommends getting those done about six weeks prior to the start of the season, so that the provider can address any potential issues with the patient before the season starts.

Portin also recommends gradually increasing your physical activity leading up to the start of the sports season.

“If you’ve been hanging around all summer, not really doing anything and then you’re going to your tryouts or you’re starting an intense practice, that’s setting you up for not only an overuse injury, but also other, more serious problems such as heat injury or heat exertion,” Portin said.

Dr. Neha Bhagi, pediatrician at Cook County Health, said that sports injuries are common during this time of year and recommends students get the proper safety equipment and stay hydrated.

Establish Healthy Habits During the School Year

The back-to-school season is also a good time to remind students of ways they can practice healthy habits. In addition to having a good sleep routine, pediatricians say other healthy habits include:

  • Eating breakfast before school starts
  • Properly washing your hands after eating or using the bathroom
  • Getting enough physical activity during the day
  • Not attending school when the student is sick
  • Wearing a mask

“When the season starts changing and more people are getting sick, even though there’s not a mask mandate, I have recommended that patients wear a mask,” Chow-Johnson said.

Check in About Mental Health

Pediatricians recommend that parents check in with their kids before the school year starts about how they feel and keep that communication open during the school year.

“Some kids are very scared to go back to school, so they are very anxious,” Bhagi said. “Some kids may even have depression or maybe have separation anxiety from their parents to go back to school, they may not be able to cope well.”

For young children who are reluctant or anxious to go back to school, Bhagi recommends taking your child with you when you go school shopping to buy them something like a new backpack or lunch box, which can give them some encouragement and get them excited for the school year.

Parents can check in with their children during the school year by asking them about how their school day went, if they met new friends, what their homework is and if they are being bullied.

Chow-Johnson said because children can be good at hiding things or can feel like they can’t talk about something that is happening to them, it’s important for parents to have regular conversations with their kids and to get to know them.

“Even with my own children, if I say, ‘Hey, how was your day?’ They may not tell me right then and there what happened, sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t, but since I indicated that I’m open, then sometimes I’ll hear things later,” Chow-Johnson said.

“We can’t always rely on our teachers or other people to tell us what’s going on,” Chow-Johnson continued. “Our children are going to be our best source, but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that those avenues of communication are open.”

Contact Eunice Alpasan: @eunicealpasan | 773-509-5362 | [email protected]

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