GRAND ISLAND — Educators were able to learn more about how to best serve their students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic during a webinar Tuesday.

CHI Health hosted educators from Nebraska and southwest Iowa at a mental health assembly titled “Inspiring Hope in a Changing Classroom.” The assembly, held virtually via Zoom, was designed to support educators as they return to the classroom during the pandemic.

During the assembly, CHI Health discussed topics such as COVID-19 safety precautions, tools to combat student and teacher anxiety, when and how to address societal issues, and steps for self-care.

Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, an infectious disease physician with CHI Health, said coronavirus transfers from an animal to humans and has four different strains. She said the strains usually are prevalent in winter as part of the common cold, but that COVID-19 is different.

“What is new about COVID-19 is it is the novel coronavirus,” Vivekanandan said. “So you and I have never had exposure to this and do not have any antibodies to this. We need to protect each other until we are able to have vaccines or antiviral medications.”

She said it is important for teachers — and people in general — to protect themselves from COVID-19 by wearing a face covering, maintaining a 6-foot social distance and washing their hands often. Some people are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, meaning it is important for people to wear a face mask to protect themselves against the coronavirus.

“When it comes to children, the COVID-19 cases are very low,” Vivekanandan said. “There have been kids who have gotten severe infections, but those are related to when they have had underlying health issues. Kids are at a lower risk for getting COVID-19; however, adults like teachers and staff are at higher risk.”

She said there have been a number of discussions about whether kids should wear face masks. As an infectious disease physician, she believes it is OK for kids to wear them.

Vivekanandan said there are concerns about whether kids will retain carbon dioxide and get enough oxygen, but studies show kids are getting enough oxygen when wearing a face mask.

Dr. David Quimby, another infectious disease physician with CHI Health, said face masks do not need to be changed out after a few hours “unless it is becoming soiled, wet with something or there is a physical issue with it.”

Quimby said that if an individual is using a cloth mask, they should wash it at the end of the day.

He said a face mask can make it difficult for students to inhale but exercising outside without a mask should be OK as long as they are maintaining a 6-foot social distance. Students should be fine not wearing a mask in a large gym setting if they are spread apart.

When students resume in-person learning in the fall, Quimby said, “there is no way” desks can be 6 feet apart with the number of students in the classroom. This, he said, is why wearing face masks is important.

“I am aware that some districts are not having a mandatory masking policy,” he said. “So if there are students who are not wearing masks, it might be safer for them to do more solo activities than in a small group because they are not able to have that extra barrier of protection. So, ideally, it is good to have as few people in a group as possible. If you are in a small group, I would think masking is very important there.”

In a response to a question from an educator, Quimby said it will not make any difference whether a door is open or closed in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Sheila St. Amant, a school-based mental health therapist with CHI Health, said the best way to help kids enforce safety precautions without scaring them is to practice with them and remind students so the precautions become routine.

“Some of the kids might need to learn how to put their mask on,” St. Amant said. “They might need to be reminded of the hand washing. It is practice, reminders and routine. They need to know we are all doing this to keep them safe.”

She was asked how teachers can talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically if any of their family members have died from the coronavirus.

“We have a long way to go in being able to understand kids need a comfort spot — a safe space — and that will have to be tailored in a little bit different way to ensure sanitation,” St. Amant said. “(Teachers need to) provide opportunities for those coping skills to be utilized for that child to know what they need to engage in and encourage them to utilize that if needed.”

Dr. Monica Arora, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with CHI Health, discussed the signs of trauma due to COVID-19 and how to support students who may show signs. She said five months of isolation, restrictions and uncertainties, as well as social unrest in communities, have taken a toll on students’ well-being.

Arora said the signs may not be obvious with students as they find a way to cope with their feelings — often in an inappropriate manner. Typical responses to trauma include anxiety, worry, sadness, loss of concentration and isolating oneself.

“What is unique about kids is they usually do not present the typical things you would think about with trauma in adults,” she said. “That is where it is important to actually identify some of these symptoms early on so that we can get them the help that they need.”

Arora said some signs of trauma in younger children, age preschool to 7, include a regression in milestones — such as clinginess to caregivers, bed wetting and/or thumb sucking — increased aggression and tantrums that are harder to console.

For children age 7 to 13, she said, the response to trauma may include worrying, difficulty concentrating, decreased motivation, not enjoying activities like they used to, defiance and/or irritability. Children also may refuse to go to school and/or have a decline in their academic performance.

Arora said with in-person school resuming this fall, it is critical that teachers are prepared to help their students with trauma. She said ways teachers can prepare to help students with trauma include focusing on building relationships, ensuring the safety of students, listening to emotions and feelings, helping students process information and having age-appropriate knowledge for discussion.

“It is not a matter of starting with academics at this point. What teachers really need to do in the first two weeks is build those connections and those relationships,” she said. “School needs to be a very safe place for students to talk about their feelings. It is OK if all they want to talk about is what has happened in the last five to six months when they have not been in school and their experiences.”

Those wanting to view the videos from Tuesday’s webinar may do so at chihealth.com/teacherassembly.