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Back-to-school season guidance: Six strategies to prevent illness in child care settings

As Oklahoma’s school-age children head back to class this month, preventing the spread of illness is a major concern for parents and educators. Rising case numbers of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), COVID-19 including the delta variant, and seasonal flu are already generating health and safety concerns.

Now is the time to review best practices in preparation for fall and winter’s expected illness peak.

While not all sources of illness can be controlled, every child care provider is responsible for implementing safety standards to mitigate the risks associated with seasonal illnesses both common and uncommon. All recommendations are in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Good Health Handbook: A Guide for Those Caring for Children presented by the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Oklahoma Human Services.

Prevent illness this school year with these six strategies.

Encourage staff members to get vaccinated: Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 and the flu. Children under age 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against COVID-19, which makes getting immunized all the more important for their parents, teachers and other caregivers. Vaccinated adults also fare much better if they happen to contract either virus. Fewer hospitalizations and less severe symptoms overall have been noted in those who have been vaccinated, according to CDC statistics. Stagger staffing among classroom teachers and support personnel to plan for absences. Reference the CDC’s COVID-19 Toolkit for Staff in School Settings and Childcare Programs for additional steps to encourage vaccination. Remind your staff to check with local clinics, pharmacies and doctors’ offices for flu vaccines, which will be available starting in mid-September.

Model correct and consistent mask use: The CDC currently recommends masks for child participants ages 2 and over in indoor settings. Masks are also advised for crowded outdoor settings, especially during close contact activities with people who are not fully vaccinated. Because children cannot yet be vaccinated against COVID-19, adopting masks as a work policy for staff may be advisable. Find more information here about how to choose a well-fitting, multilayered mask and clean it properly. Note: Children should never wear a mask while sleeping.

Keep children in small groups and maintain physical distancing: Limit children’s exposure by keeping small groups, known as cohorts, together for most activities, including playtimes, naps and meals. Keep cohorts separated by six feet when possible. Modify use of shared spaces, stagger bus rows in use during transportation and separate cribs or sleeping mats. The CDC suggests prioritizing outdoor play when possible.

Increase ventilation: Making sure HVAC and other air filtration systems are in working order is essential. Opening doors and windows can also help, as the CDC states “bringing fresh outdoor air into a building helps keep virus particles from concentrating inside.” Opening bus or van windows to allow for air circulation is also advisable.

Step up cleaning routines: Licensed child care providers are responsible for following all sanitation protocols from Oklahoma Human Services. Staff are required to use “an appropriate cleaner, sanitizer or disinfectant for the task. For sanitizing and disinfecting, only a sanitizer or disinfectant with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration number or household bleach is used.” Make a freshly-diluted bleach solution daily for staff use, per DHS guidelines. Lab testing has not proven the efficacy of vinegar, essential oils or homemade alternatives, and therefore cannot substitute approved cleaning substances in child care settings. Hot, soapy water is considered a more effective alternative if disinfectant wipes or a bleach solution are not appropriate for a specific item. Post signage with step-by-step instructions for proper cleaning of daily use items. More information is available in our blog post, “Cleaning guidance in the era of COVID 19: A three-tier strategy + Q&A.”

The CDC’s official guidance document for child care providers is an excellent resource with detailed suggestions. If you have questions about specific scenarios, our Rainbow Fleet Resource and Referral Center can help find answers. Email Executive Director Carri Hicks for further discussion.


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