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A parent’s guide to addressing children’s anxieties about the coronavirus

TORONTO — As the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV spreads and schools send home notices regarding it, children may have questions about the virus and its impact.

Public health officials say that having clear and non-reactionary conversations with your children provide a good opportunity to talk about hygiene and can prevent fear and anxiety.

“I think that parents should be role-models … and discuss it in a calm way,” said pediatrician Dr. Dina Kulik in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca Tuesday.

“I think a lot of parents are very fearful – but the reality is the way to prevent coronavirus is the same as to prevent flu,” she said. “Talk to your kid, and say things like ‘You might see some kids that are missing school, you might see some kids that are wearing masks at schools’ … and remind them about being vigilant about handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding people that are sick.”

Kulik said that the theoretical risk of the coronavirus has taken over public discourse. She called it “disappointing” that “the rhetoric isn’t around illnesses that we absolutely can prevent,” such as influenza.

“There is so much fear around this,” Kulik said, adding that she had not spoken to her own kids about coronavirus specifically, but simply reiterated flu season etiquette. “The death rate is not higher for this [the coronavirus]; the death rate is higher for flu.”

Kulik’s message is echoed by public health officials.

“At this point the risk is low,” said Dr. Hirotaka Yamashiro, the chair of the pediatrics section of the Ontario Medical Association, in an email to CTVNews.ca Monday. Yamashiro added that the chances of contracting seasonal influenza are much higher than those of getting the coronavirus.

Yamashiro said that the headlines about 2019-nCoV present a “great opportunity” for parents to teach children about the most effective ways of preventing illness from infectious viruses.

“It is important to stress that the most important thing is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face and eyes as much as possible,” Yamashiro said. “Preventive measures also include getting your flu shot so you have protection against the more common flu virus, which could mimic the coronavirus infection.”

It is a sentiment seconded by David Jensen of the Ontario Ministry of Health, who also told CTVNews.ca in an email on Monday that “the risk … remains low,” and that recommended precautions for children include “washing your hands often, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and practising proper cough and sneeze etiquette.”

Both Jensen and Yamashiro stressed that although China has reported some cases of children contracting 2019-nCoV, the “vast majority” of cases are in older adults and there are no confirmed pediatric cases in Ontario.

“It’s important to note that the clinical definition for persons considered at-risk, all involve recent travel history to the area of Wuhan, China,” said Jensen.

Parents should also “correct misinformation using clear words that are at an appropriate age level for their child,” Jensen said, citing the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Health as reliable online sources about 2019-nCoV’s progression.

Misinformation addressed by parents should include sinophobic sentiments children are exposed to in response to coverage of 2019-nCoV, as “we would not want children to ostracize Asian children, for example,” Yamashiro said.

Yamashiro noted that both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have sections on their websites that advise parents how best to speak to children about communicable diseases in the news.

What guidelines does the CDC recommend for parents?

While the CDC has not written a tailored 2019-nCoV response for parents, their basic guidelines apply:

  • Talk to your child directly; ask them what they have heard about the disease

Listening for underlying fears, concerns and misinformation your children may have is important so the parent knows what to address in their response. Do not make it a one-time conversation, and ensure channels of communication are open.

  • Gently correct misinformation

Tailoring your response for your child’s age, development and concerns, make sure you correct any misinformation they may have heard using reliable health authority resources.

  • Answer questions in a way that reassures, not scares

Keep your answers simple and direct, and give your children practical advice on how to stay healthy. Allow your children to express their feelings and encourage them to continue to do so. Remind your child that they shouldn’t be afraid to play with friends or classmates who may have visited, or be from the affected area.

How have schools responded?

Both the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) said in emailed statements to CTVNews.ca that the organizations take their lead from public health officials, who have not advised any additional precautions or protocols at this time.

The YRDSB told CTVNews.ca they had sent three letters home to families and keep an updated page on their website dedicated to 2019-nCoV. The TDSB also said they had sent home letters to families and wanted to assure parents that they “are monitoring the situation closely.”

Two private schools have expressed safety concerns after learning some parents were on the same flight as the man currently hospitalized at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre with Canada’s first confirmed case of 2019-nCoV. Richmond Hill Montessori School asked families who have travelled to China to keep their child home for 15 days after they return to Toronto, and Toronto Montessori School released a message to parents on Sunday informing them that the parents who were on South China Airlines flight CZ311, along with their children, would be staying home and isolating themselves as a precaution.

Somerset Academy in Markham sent home a letter last weekend announcing that families who travelled to Asia will not be allowed on school property until 15 days after the day they returned to Canada, and asked for proof via boarding passes and passports.

A petition titled “Stop the Potential spreading of the Novel coronavirus in schools of York Region, Ontario,” calls for schools to keep track of students who have recently travelled to China and asks for families to stay isolated for a minimum of 17 days. As of this article’s publishing time, it had more than 9,000 signatures, however reaction to it has been mixed after the YRDSB released a note saying it could be seen as demonstrating bias and racism, according to The Canadian Press.

A second petition that has more than 30,000 signatures on Change.org is asking the school boards to “close all campuses in Ontario to stop the Wuhan virus” and to meet their five demands:

  • Ensure all students have access to medical supplies
  • Students attendance to classes must be optional
  • A committee must be formed to raise awareness and monitor the disease
  • Offer mental health support to the students in need
  • Students’ names and contact information must be recorded when attending large events.

Parents are urged to speak to their primary care physician or pediatrician if they have any concerns or require advice and to monitor trusted public health websites for updates on 2019-nCoV.

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