Back to School with Diabetes Amidst the COVID-19 Variants

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Blog written by Lala Jackson, Senior Project Manager at Beyond Type 1, on behalf of the JDRF – Beyond Type 1 Alliance. 

While hopes were high that we could head back to school for the 2021 school year as though we were closer to “normal,” the development of COVID-19 variants amidst low vaccination rates has thrown a wrench in plans. But when kids need to get back to in-person schooling for quality of life, quality of learning, and socialization, how can we best keep them safe?

To help answer this and other questions about going back to school safely, JDRF—in collaboration with American Diabetes Association and Sansum Diabetes Research Institute—hosted a conversation with doctors and experts from the CDC, ADA, and the Fairfax County Health Department (Virginia). 

Moderator Dr. Kristin Castorino, senior research physician at Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, kicked off the event with the most pressing question—is it even safe for students and their teachers who have diabetes to return to in person schooling, particularly for those under 12 who cannot be vaccinated yet? 

“I’d change the question from ‘is it safe?’ to ‘is it appropriate?’ and I think it is,” answered Dr. Fran Kaufman, pediatric endocrinologist and chief medical officer at Senseonics. “There aren’t known answers as things change… but we need to get our kids back to school, not only for learning but for socialization.”

Dr. Kaufman stressed that the best way to make school safe is for everyone who can get vaccinated to do so. Dr. Christa-Marie Singleton, MD, MPH, senior medical advisor at the CDC later elaborated, “Vaccines protect folks against serious symptoms, hospitalization, and death. The best way to protect ourselves, our families, and our youngest people is for the adults and kids over the age of 12 around them to get vaccinated.”

“We also know about the importance of masking,” continued Dr. Kaufman. “It’s important to follow the CDC’s recommendation that all children and adults should be masked in the indoor school environment.”

What about the legal rights of kids with diabetes?

Particularly as some states ban school districts from being able to require masks in indoor learning environments, what legal protections do kids with diabetes have to stay safe in school? Crystal Woodward, MPS, director of the ADA’s Safe at School campaign, stressed “the rights of students with diabetes do not go away during a pandemic. They have legal protections under federal and state laws. Those accommodations may look a little different, but they do not go away.”

Similarly to how the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with diabetes in the workplace, section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act protects the education of children with disabilities like diabetes. This law allows children with diabetes and their families to create what are known as 504 plans, which clearly outline agreed upon accommodations for students with disabilities at school. 

While parents cannot dictate the actions of other students, they can include directives for their own children to stay safer from COVID-19 in 504 Plans, like instructions that their student must always wear a mask or will need extra physical distance in a classroom setting.

“It’s imperative that [children with diabetes] have a section 504 plan,” Crystal explained. “Everyone needs to be clear on what accommodations will be provided and by whom, like the student having the ability to take an exam at an alternate time if blood glucose levels are out of range during the scheduled test time.” Ensuring the student also knows what is in their own 504 plan can help them feel more empowered and comfortable asking for what they need.

For distance learning, 504 plans can dictate that children with diabetes can take snack or meal breaks at times best for the student, or have an agreed upon communication method with the teacher if the student needs to take a break to attend to a low or high blood sugar. 

“Bottom line: the rights of students do not go away,” Crystal reiterated. “Students with diabetes and their families should work with schools and everyone needs to understand their role and responsibilities, and the plan should be updated as needed. It’s always better to get it in writing. Put the 504 plan in place while everything is going well—you never know if a principal or a nurse or a teacher is going to be there throughout the year.” Panel members stressed that families who don’t speak English, particularly in public schools, have a legal right to translators who can help establish 504 plans.

Jacqueline McManemin, RN, BSN, certified diabetes education and care specialist (CDECS) and assistant nurse manager for the health services division of Fairfax County Health Department in Virginia, spoke about what they’re continuing to do in their school district (one of the 15 largest in the nation) to keep students safe. “Parents should expect to see much of the same precautions this year that were in place last year. Particularly when students are inside, they should be masked.” 

School administrators across the country can work to make schools more safe for all children, particularly those with chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, by putting in protective measures like establishing two different health clinics—one for people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or other communicable illnesses and a separate clinic for routine care and injury treatment.  Meals can be eaten outside as weather permits and student interaction in hallways can be minimized by teachers rotating between classrooms rather than groups of students switching classrooms every period. Protocol also needs to be clearly communicated with all staff and parents about what to do if a student starts showing symptoms of COVID-19 while at school. 

Getting kids mentally ready for in-person school 

Back to school doesn’t just mean a change of location, it’s a change in schedules, types of interaction and stimulation, and levels of distraction that can also impact diabetes care. Psychologist Cynthia E. Muñoz, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and president of healthcare and education for the American Diabetes Association, reminded the community that the impact of the pandemic on each individual has been unique and therefore approaches to regain a sense of normalcy must be unique too. 

“For parents and guardians, be aware of how you’ve been impacted. Seek support, through family, through primary care, through a therapist. Find ways to talk about your fears or concerns,” encouraged Dr. Muñoz. She went on to suggest ways to get kids mentally and physically ready for school again. 

“Now that schools are starting to open, it’s time to start looking at sleep schedules, screen time, and start shifting routines and schedules to get children ready for the new routine,” she noted. “Many people watch a lot of content on social media or television—not just kids, everyone—but it’s a passive interaction with others. Shifting to a more active form of communication with others can be another way to help people ease into the change of a lot more interaction than people have had in the last year or so.”

Helping kids who feel singled out

Kids with diabetes often deal with feelings of being the odd kid out, having to visit the school nurse, having to deal with special routines. When COVID-19 is added, kids with diabetes may feel like they’re the only ones taking special precautions, which can be additionally isolating. How can parents help children dealing with these feelings?

“I like to approach this question around the concept of support, building layers of support around the student,” Dr. Muñoz explained. “One level should be ensuring that someone at the school should know that the child has diabetes and knows what kind of support they need. Another category is who could know [the student has diabetes], but doesn’t necessarily have to, like friends. For the student with diabetes, getting support from a friend or classmate they trust could go a long way. If the student feels like they’re going to be the only one wearing a mask, they can ask a friend to wear it with them.”

“I think it’s important for adults to be sensitive to this,” Dr. Muñoz continued. “Saying “everyone has something different” might minimize how a student feels. Acknowledging their feelings and taking the time to ask them what will help goes a long way.”

You can watch the entire conversation below:

Editor’s Note: We have a simple goal: tap into the power of the global diabetes community to save lives. Visit coronavirusdiabetes.org to learn more about what you can do as a person with diabetes to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19 until we’re all safe. 

For additional information about diabetes and school, consult the ADA’s Safe at School resourcesJDRF’s School and T1D resources (made possible in part through the support of Lilly Diabetes), and School resources from our partners at Beyond Type 1.