As COVID-19 cases rise across the country and school districts release their plans for the fall, many parents are torn. On the one hand, kids are desperate for socialization and non-digital education. On the other, teacher unions are citing fears for their own and students’ health and safety. So how can parents weigh the risks or benefits of sending kids back to school in person this fall?
First of all, know that this decision might be out of your hands entirely. "Advice I give today may change next week," immunologist and infectious disease expert Purvi Parikh, M.D., tells Romper over the phone. Regulations and case numbers are changing on a day-to-day basis, making it difficult to plan with any certainty. Durga Sunitha Posina, M.D. , a board-certified physician in internal medicine, agrees, telling Romper in an email: “I think it’s too premature to make a generalized decision for the country, as we have to first work on multiple aspects of the issue, especially given that a huge part of our country is currently going through the peak of the coronavirus pandemic."
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), whose initial guidance to re-open schools was often cited by the Trump administration, clarified its position in a joint statement with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA) and AASA, The School Superintendents Association:
“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. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it."
Dr. Parikh urges parents to research exactly what their local schools are recommending instead of focusing on national news and guidelines. "We don't just want to see a flat curve, we want to see a downward trending curve," says Dr. Parikh. "I would also look at what measures schools are doing to follow CDC or NIH guidelines."
“We have to keep in mind that not all schools are the same, they have different numbers of students, challenges and requirements," Dr. Posina adds. "The approach needed for elementary schools will probably be different than middle or high schools in regard to how to keep them socially distanced, PPE. In addition, we also have to take into account the teachers and ancillary staffs comfort levels while making these decisions.”
Weighing what to do will really come down to taking a hard look at how your child’s particular school intends to address social distancing, classroom size, and school year expectations.
But while you’re thinking about all of that, Dr. Posina urges parents to remember that keeping kids home isn’t a perfect solution either.
“Keeping them home for such long durations is not ideal, but I think it is best we wait at this time as the pandemic further unfolds. Public safety overtakes in these circumstances given that it is a contagious disease and is currently of utmost importance to stop the spread,” she says.
Choosing to send children back to the classroom comes with added responsibility; not just for parents and teachers but for kids. Parents need to make sure kids truly understand the importance of social distancing, wearing face masks, washing their hands thoroughly, and not touching their face, says Dr. Posina. Not an easy thing to do with, say, a kindergartner. Plus, all children are different. "Two kids could be the same age but be night and day between level of understanding and maturity," she says. So it's important to account for your child's developmental understanding of what safety and health protocols mean and whether or not they can follow them.
And then there’s the tricky topic of whether or not to test your children for coronavirus antibodies before heading back to school. “Parents can always get their children the antibody test; however, being positive at this time does not give us as an immunity passport,” says Dr. Posina. “We don’t know how much immunity these antibodies offer or how long they protect one against the virus if they do at this time. In addition, it could be an overall false-positive given that the test can sometimes be falsely positive due to antibodies from other coronaviruses that cause the common cold, SARS and MERs.”
The harsh truth, says Dr. Purvikh, is that some children who return to school will get Covid-19. That's simply the statistical reality of this pandemic. While the general consensus at the beginning of the pandemic seemed to be that kids weren't likely to contract the virus, there have been more and more reports to the contrary in recent weeks: In one Texas county, more than 80 children under 2 years old, (most of them younger than 12 months) tested positive, NBC News reported on July 18; in Los Angeles, 15 children were diagnosed with MISC-C, the rare inflammatory syndrome linked to the virus, reported Yahoo! News on July 20. But even if kids have a mild case, parents need to consider how at risk other family members in the household might be.
“Children don’t necessarily get as sick from the virus at least from what we have so far. However, there is always a risk of the children catching the virus and spreading it to others such as family members," says Dr. Posina. "We certainly know the elderly population and people with certain medical conditions have higher risk than others, so that decision should be weighed in by families based on their comfort levels and individual situations. They can always discuss it with their primary care or family physician for further input.”
(Speaking of family physicians, Dr. Parikh reminds parents to keep on top of your children's yearly vaccines and booster shots, even if they don't physically go to school. She says we need those now more than ever, especially a flu vaccine to arm kids for the fall.)
There's no question that this is a trying time, especially for parents, and there are no good answers. But maybe there's reason to be hopeful. Dr. Parikh says she's encouraged by the efforts to produce a vaccine.
"I'm feeling pretty optimistic," she says. "Many companies have announced really good results and have moved into Phase 3 of large scale testing. What we're doing right now is months of innovation that usually takes years and there is promising data coming out of those studies. I think we could have a vaccine by the end of year or early 2021."