Back to school considerations: Kids with medical challenges

7/31/2020

Source: Hamilton County Reporter

By: Brenda McLean, IHTC School Counselor

While many schools are making final decisions and preparations regarding back-to-school, many parents are feeling unsure about the best option for the health and safety of their children in these unprecedented times. This is particularly true for parents of children with medical challenges.

Every fall, returning to school raises specific concerns for families whose school-aged children have underlying medical issues. As a school counselor who works closely with kids with life-long medical conditions – specifically rare bleeding and blood disorders – I am often asked how I help these families prepare ahead of the school year.

This year, the unique challenges and risks of the pandemic are stressful, and families are having to make even more difficult decisions. These decisions can best be made by first reviewing the school’s health and safety plan to determine if an in-person or virtual learning option is best, along with other factors related to the child’s overall health.

First stop: Your child’s healthcare provider(s)

If your child has underlying medical issues, the decision to choose in-person or virtual learning is very personal and complex. Consulting with your child’s healthcare provider(s) is critical. Your child’s provider(s) has the most complete knowledge of your child’s condition and the expertise to help you weigh the health risks, the impact of COVID-19, and the social and emotional concerns unique to each learning environment.

Sharing the school’s COVID-19 safety plan with your healthcare provider is important, as it will help the provider to make a better-informed recommendation and provide any individualized recommendations in writing, as needed.

In-person learning considerations

When a child with medical challenges is in the in-person learning environment, parents have understandable concerns. How will I help the school nurse and staff understand my child’s condition and medication needs? Will staff recognize signs and symptoms of concern? Will my student’s unique needs be met such as restroom or water breaks? Will his/her learning needs be met or do we need to pursue a Section 504 or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? These concerns and more create a complex set of circumstances to navigate. Consider the following if, after consulting with your child’s healthcare provider, in-person learning is selected:

  • Review the school’s COVID-19 safety guidelines with your child. Discuss why the guidelines have been developed, the importance of following them and concerns if they are not followed.
  • Practice wearing a mask for extended periods of time if not already part of normal practice. Be aware of keeping hands away from the mask.
  • Provide your school with a copy of the written individualized recommendations from your healthcare provider(s).
  • Collaborate with the school staff to develop an Individualized Health Plan (IHP). Also discuss the need for a Section 504 or assessment for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to support your child’s unique learning needs.
  • Ensure your child wears or carries their medical ID each day; obtain one if needed.
  • Talk with your child about properly advocating for their needs in school.
  • Consider possible health situations that may arise and ways to encourage school attendance and participation.

Virtual learning considerations

If choosing virtual learning, parents still have many concerns. Will my child be able to participate in the learning environment in a meaningful way? How will teachers and school staff help my child feel as typical as possible? How will his/her specific learning needs be met? Do we need to pursue a Section 504 or an IEP?

  • Be prepared to provide school with written documentation from your child’s healthcare provider(s) if virtual learning is found to be the most appropriate choice.
  • Even in a virtual learning environment, it is important to consider your child’s learning needs and if a Section 504 or an assessment for an IEP is appropriate to provide support.
  • Collaborate closely with school staff to encourage and support every opportunity for your child to be as engaged as possible with virtual classroom learning and their peers (i.e. necessary technology equipment, clear lines of communication, virtual participation options, etc.).
  • Validate your child’s concerns and frustrations about not being with peers at school, engage the help of the school counselor or social worker, and be creative to help your child socially engage with peers.

This upcoming school year is presenting a unique set of challenges and decisions for all parents of school-aged children, teachers, administrators and staff. All of us are thinking about health and safety in ways we never could have imagined. This is especially true for parents of children with chronic medical conditions. In deciding the best learning path for your child at this time, be sure that all the facts are available and have frank and honest conversations with all the relevant participants in your child’s physical health, mental health and education – including your child.

If you feel you need further help in understanding or obtaining necessary educational support or accommodations for your child, a list of advocacy groups can be found on the Indiana Department of Education website.

You are not alone. We are all in this together.

Brenda McLean is a school counselor with the Indiana Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center who helps school-aged patients and their families navigate education settings with their health concerns in mind. She also works directly with school staff and administration to help advocate for children’s unique needs in the school setting.

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