If you're like me, and your school is offering a remote option for education this year, you've struggled with making the best back to school decision for your kids.
Will they get sick, or get someone else sick?
Will they be happy and thrive with the new school experience?
Will school even stay open long enough for it to matter?
I've put a ton of thought (and a ton of medical research) into this, and have finally made a decision I am satisfied with for my kids.
Hopefully I can break this down and help you make a good decision too. Let's get started.
- Can you survive with your kids at home?
- What is your child's individual risk?
- Are your children putting others at risk?
- What are your school's safety policies?
- What type of learning works best for your children?
- What will you do WHEN your kid's classroom or school closes?
- My Opinion
Decision #1 - Can You Survive with Your Kids at Home?
Unfortunately, this is more serious than, "I'll lose my mind if my kids are home all day".
Can you work if your kids are home?
Are you able, or can you afford, to take off work to keep your kids home?
If the answer is no to both of these, send your kids to school.
Do your kids rely on the free or reduced lunch program offered at school? Does your child rely on special needs services at school? If yes, send your kids to school.
Are your kids safe at home during the day? If no, send them to school.
The unfortunate reality is that most parents rely on school to keep their household running and kids healthy. In America, 22 million kids rely on the free or reduced lunch program.
If schools are not open, millions of kids will go hungry. If schools are not open, millions of kids will be at home alone or in unsafe situations while their parents are working.
Schools NEED to open to prevent deaths, abuse, and starvation, and to prevent millions of families from being evicted from their homes. If you or your child is in this situation, your kids need to be in school.
Decision #2 - Evaluate the Risk for Your Children
If you are fortunate enough to have an option for schooling, the next step is deciding whether it is safe for your kids to go to school.
Keep in mind, when evaluating risk, it will never be completely safe, or completely unsafe. Something all of us need to get used to and accept, especially in the COVID era, is that there is always an element of risk to our decisions.
If your child is considered high risk, keep them home. So, any child who is immunocompromised, has uncontrolled asthma, has type 1 diabetes, or other conditions your pediatrician or family doctor has concern for, should stay home.
For all other children, the risk to them is minimal, and school is likely to be very safe for them.
There is the rare report of MIS-C (multisystemic inflammatory syndrome in children) which is a tragic, life threatening complication. In Colorado, 2 children have died from this, and pediatric experts are predicting at least 50 cases as schools open. While this is very scary, it is very rare.
So, what is your child's individual risk?
High? Stop here and keep them home.
Low to moderate? Read on.
Decision #3 - Are Your Children Putting Others at Risk?
Are you yourself high risk, or do you live with someone who is high risk, or have an baby under 1 year of age at home? Strongly consider keeping your kids at home.
Will you frequently be in contact with someone who is high risk? Again, think about remote learning.
What about the rest of us?
Many of us will eventually get COVID-19. Most of us will recover without complication.
But people will die or have lifelong health problems because of COVID-19. In fact, recent research shows a majority of people have residual inflammation in their heart after infection. Will this cause problems down the road?
The truth is we really don't know if there are long term consequences to getting COVID-19 yet. This is where your individual evaluation of your risk gets tricky, there's so much we don't know about this disease, and I don't have a great answer for how much or little risk each individual should feel comfortable taking.
Regardless, if your child gets COVID-19, there's a good chance they will spread to others in your household, possibly without you ever knowing they are sick.
Current evidence shows even though children get sick less, and have milder symptoms, they have much higher viral loads which means they may spread it even more than adults do. Living in the same household and being in constant close contact means an even higher likelihood of spread.
If your kids go to school, you have a much higher chance of getting COVID-19. Take some time and think about how much risk you, and others in your household, are willing to take in this regard.
From a public health standpoint, the more kids that are in school, the more COVID-19 will spread in the community, which should also be a factor in your decision.
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Decision #4 - Does Your School's Safety Policy Minimize Spread and Protect Teachers?
This is where I am struggling the most with my decision, and if you're still reading this article, this will likely be your most difficult decision. Let's start with the ideal scenario.
If your school is opening with small class sizes, students and teachers remaining within their small "cohort" to prevent spread of infectious disease outside of their group, there is ample use of outdoor space, and appropriate mask usage and distancing while in the classroom, while minimizing the disruption to kids normal learning (especially in elementary school), then congratulations, you have hit the school jackpot and should strongly consider sending your kids to school! Doubly so if the rates of COVID-19 in your community are low.
I don't know of any school that perfectly meets these criteria. Because of limitations to budgets, class sizes, teacher availability, and building design, schools are all opening under less than ideal circumstances.
Even under the best circumstances, kids are not great at respecting personal bubbles, let alone adhering to social distancing and infection control rules. Needless to say, if COVID-19 is spreading in your community, it will spread in your school.
Just look at school districts that have started opening already. In Georgia, 260 employees have been excluded from work due to COVID infection or exposure, before school even opened. In Indiana, they instituted a quarantine of certain students after a child tested positive within hours of school opening.
And then there's the whole mask issue to consider. Sticking to the science and to population health, masks decrease transmission rates of airborne viruses. A school with a strict mask policy will have lower rates of transmission. A school with a more lenient policy will have higher rates of transmission. Lower transmission means less kids getting the virus, less teachers getting ill with the virus, and less school closures.
All this to say, your school's infection control policies will directly affect the quality (and quantity) of education your kids will receive. If the infection control policy is lax, be prepared for interruptions in the school year. Even with a strict policy, interruptions are likely.
If you feel comfortable with the above, send your kid to school. If not, keep them home.
Decision #5 - What Type of Learning is Best for Your Kids?
Some kids thrive in an independent remote learning environment. Some kids hate it. Some have a difficult time being away from peers. Some will do worse in a "sterile" environment at school.
As an example, my kids' school is likely removing all soft objects, chairs, etc from kindergarten classrooms, and designating "boxes" of space that kids are to stand or sit in when learning. Many kids will do poorly with this setup, some won't care.
If you are thinking about keeping your children home, will they be able to safely socialize with other children their age? Especially for younger children, social development is a huge part of school, and should not be overlooked.
Knowing the reality that schools will be different this year - what learning environment is best for your child?
Decision #6 - What Will You Do When Your Kid's Classroom or School Closes?
Yes... when, not if.
COVID-19 will be an issue in schools, and they will institute quarantines, classroom closures, and possibly some school closures.
What is your school's sick policy for teachers? Will they be supported in calling out sick, or coerced into working?
ANY illness will now be taken seriously, and teachers (and students) will be sent home if they are running a fever or have a respiratory illness, even if it is not COVID-19, and everyone they have contacted will have to stay at home until the COVID test returns.
COVID-19 test turnaround time is currently around 5-7 days on average in the Denver metro area. That's at least a one week shutdown for every respiratory illness in your classroom.
Does your school have adequate substitutes available to fill in during these times? Do you have a plan for when your child is forced to quarantine?
If you are not prepared for frequent interruptions in school, consider remote learning.
Schools must open. Yes, there is a raging pandemic, but schools are a critical necessity for many people in our country. There needs to be in person options for kids and families who rely on schools for food, childcare, and basic education.
But, schools must open smart. There is no way around it, opening schools at the peak of the COVID pandemic will only increase case numbers, but opening schools with as good a plan as is possible to protect the students and teachers, and ensure minimal interruptions, will help make the best of a bad situation.
As for you and your kids - Evaluate your personal risks. Decide what level of risk you are willing to accept. Factor in your school district's response and the level of COVID transmission in your community. Think about how your kids learn best. And make the decision that is best for you, your kids, and those around you.
And then try not to stress about your decision, you have obviously put a lot of thought into it and are doing what you think is best!
As for my personal opinion and personal suggestions:
If you have the capability to safely keep your kids home, do it, and do your best to provide them a good education and appropriate socialization despite the lack of school. It will help decrease class size and transmission at school, keep teachers and the community safer, and allow parents who don't have another option to safely send their kids to school.
If it is dangerous for you, your child, or those in your household to be exposed to COVID-19, stay home, and stay safe.
If you rely on school to work, or your child relies on services that school provides, send your children to school, but try to have a contingency plan for school closures.
Did I Miss Anything?
Are there other factors that you're dealing with in making this decision? Did you find this information helpful? Feel free to share or comment on social media, and good luck this school year, no matter what your decision is!