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Should your kids go back to school during COVID-19? By Dr. Jennifer Larson

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: As experts learn more about the novel coronavirus, news and information changes. For the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Summer is still blazing across the nation, but parents of school-aged children are focused more on the impending school year.

Thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the back-to-school season this year will look very different. And parents everywhere are wrestling with hard choices that they have to make for the physical safety and emotional well-being of their children and their families.  

School closures and coronavirus

School closures spread like wildfire in the spring, as the coronavirus began to infect people across the country. Many stayed closed for the rest of the school year. 

Now, months later, the U.S. has logged almost 4 million COVID-19 infections, and new casesare on the rise in many states. As a result, many school leaders are agonizing about whether to reopen their schools.

Is it safe to reopen schools?

Many have looked to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for guidance. 

School reopening plans must look different for every community, according to the AAP. The decision will be based on COVID-19 infection rates and the capacity to protect people against exposure.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers, and staff,” the AAP said in a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and the School Superintendents Association (AASA). “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also issued a statement that encourages opening schools in areas of low community transmission. On its website, the CDC offers guidance and tools for parents and caregivers. 

Many school leaders believe they cannot safely reopen their schools yet. Consequently, those schools will be opting for online—or remote learning—programs. Meanwhile, other schools are planning to reopen for in-person learning, albeit with some safety precautions in place. The debate to reopen has also deepened the division between some private and public schools, as private schools plan to reopen during coronavirus and public schools plan for e-learning. Some schools and school districts are letting parents choose the option that’s right for their child. But the choice is not easy to make. 

Should you keep your child home?

Many parents are agonizing about whether to send their children back to school or to keep them home for an online remote learning program. There is some evidence that remote learning is less effective—especially for students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and don’t have access to resources. Remote learning requires time and resources not every family has. Not to mention, the impact of an entire school year without face-to-face interaction with teachers and friends is unknown. Not to mention that teachers and schools aren’t equipped for or trained in online teaching.

The choice is even more fraught for parents of children with chronic health issues or with special needs requiring accommodations that may be difficult to achieve outside the structure of the classroom.

Mary Ellen Conley, BSN, RN, a former school nurse and chair of the Community Relations Committee for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of American (AAFA) explains that parents may be weighing these concerns:

  • Family members at high risk for COVID-19
  • Potential impact of social isolation on their children
  • Parents’ ability to support remote learning
  • Parents’ job situation, including the impact on childcare needs

“If a student has a major underlying medical condition, or if they live with others who might be compromised, they might want to consider remote learning as a safe option,” suggests William Li, MD, a researcher and author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. “This option should be openly discussed with their physician and the school administration.”

RELATED: Are people with chronic diseases more vulnerable to coronavirus?

Questions to ask your school

Before you make the decision about whether or not to send your kids back to school (if going back in person is an option), consider your school’s preparation efforts. “Schools have a responsibility for establishing systems where a safe and nurturing learning environment can be maintained for all students, teachers, and support staff,” says Conley.

Parents should find out how school administrators are preparing the school for a safe return, says Dr. Li. Consider asking:

  • What are the screening procedures before students resume school? 
  • Are travel quarantines in place? What about COVID-19 testing, health surveys, or temperature checks? 
  • What are the daily screening procedures?
  • Are there mask requirements?
  • What are the social distancing plans for the classroom?
  • How will meals be provided and cafeteria seating managed?
  • What about coronavirus and school sports? Will gym class or after-school sports be canceled? 
  • How will locker rooms, bathrooms, classrooms, and shared surfaces be cleaned?
  • Are air circulation and ventilation systems in the school buildings adequate?
  • What services will be available such as school nurse, guidance counselors, etc?

You might also want to ask your school about their plans for potential mid-semester school closures and coronavirus. 

  • What happens if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19?
  • What if there’s an outbreak among the student body or faculty? 
  • Are there ways for students to keep learning if schools close because of coronavirus disease?

 If your child’s school is offering a remote learning option, try to find out:

  • What curriculum will be used?
  • What are the technology requirements?
  • How much time will your child spend online?
  • How long will remote learning be available?

Some schools are requiring that students commit to a certain time period, such as a semester. For more information about how schools prepare for coronavirus, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommendations for the policies schools should have in place.

Making your choice

Still not sure what you’re going to do? There’s really no “right” answer, experts say. It’s a hard situation, and there are drawbacks to all options. Plus, research into the effects ofcoronavirus on children is still ongoing.

The CDC’s website has a decision-making tool for parents and caregivers that assesses parents’ and caregivers’ attitudes, virtual/at-home learning feasibility, academic and emotional well-being, and school based services that guides them in the decision-making process. The National Parents Teachers Association hosted a town hall with many educational and health care coalitions that offered additional considerations and guidance

“Until we get it under control, if parents can do remote learning and supplement it with whatever they can teach their child, that is the safest way,” says Rita Manfredi, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Physician at George Washington University Hospital. “It’s not the optimal way. It’s the safest way, medically. But we have no idea what the psychological effects are going to be on the kids.”

Resources for parents, students, and teachers:

In the meantime, consider checking out these school resources for coronavirus:

They may give you some useful additional info on safety during this unusual back-to-school year.

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