Should you send your child back to school? Here's how to weigh the coronavirus risks

Like so many things in the “new normal” of the coronavirus era, the usual late-summer rush for back-to-school supplies is being replaced with weightier considerations: Should I even send my child back to school at all?

Many schools in the U.S. are offering parents and guardians a choice between in-person learning, remote learning and a hybrid of the two. And though parents struggled in the spring with the responsibilities of overseeing remote learning from home, the prospect of sending their child back to school in the middle of a pandemic can also be daunting — especially as schools that have reopened are already seeing students and staff members test positive for the virus.

“It is important to consider the full spectrum of risks involved in both in-person and virtual learning options,” the CDC says. “Parents, guardians, and caregivers should weigh the relative health risks of COVID-19 transmission from in-personal instruction against the educational, social-behavioral, and emotional risks of providing no in-person instruction when deciding between these two options.”

Children in a pre-school class wear masks and sit at desks spaced in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Preschool children wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart in Monterey Park, Calif., on July 9. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

But although the CDC has published a “decision-making tool” to help caregivers weigh whether to send children to school for in-person learning, in practice many parents as well as local leaders are still grappling with the question.

“It’s a tough thing to balance, because it becomes a judgment call,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, at a coronavirus briefing on Monday. “The default position should always be to try and get the kids in school … but their safety, their health, their welfare trumps everything.

“And it’s an individual, state-by-state, location-by-location determination,” Fauci added.

“In reality, nobody’s going to be able to tell you what to do with your family,” says Yahoo News medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass. “You need to make the decision based on who lives in your house, what the risk factors to your children are, how the virus is spread in your community and what access you have to testing.”

One of the metrics the CDC advises parents to take into consideration is the infection rate in their community. Though data about the virus in children is limited, the CDC says children are believed to be less likely to get COVID-19 than adults, and when they do get it they generally have less serious illness. But children are not immune. According to the CDC, as of July 21, 6.6 percent of reported COVID-19 cases — but less than 0.1 percent of COVID-19-related deaths — in the U.S. were among children and adolescents younger than 18. In Florida, where the virus is still ravaging communities, hospitals have seen a 23 percent increase in child COVID-19 hospitalizations in just eight days, according to CNN.

“If the positive test rate in your community is higher than 5 percent, that means that more than five out of every 100 tests that are being done are positive. That is a higher test than most educators, administrators and public health officials believe is safe for children to go to school,” Kass says.

Nurse practitioner Alexander Panis (L) takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a mobile testing station in a public school parking area in Compton, California, on April 28, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Nurse practitioner Alexander Panis takes a nasal swab sample to test for COVID-19 at a mobile testing station in Compton, Calif., on April 28. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Kass says the other number you’ll need to keep in mind is how long it takes to get test results in your area. If your child is sent home from school with coronavirus-like symptoms — such as a cough, fever or shortness of breath — you may be expected to keep your child at home for the 14 days recommended for anyone exposed to the coronavirus, unless you can present a negative test result. Other children and school staff who may have been exposed to your child may also need to be tested. And months into the pandemic, many communities in the U.S. are still experiencing long delays in getting their test results.

“You need to know quickly so they don’t stay home for a week or 10 days just waiting for a negative test,” Kass says. “If testing in your community takes greater than 10 days, it is probably not a good idea to send your children to school.”

You’ll also need to consider whether your child or someone in your family has a condition that puts them at high risk of complications from the coronavirus. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC that children in the U.S. are more likely than children in other countries to have underlying conditions that place them at increased risk of severe illness. And despite President Trump’s recent claim that children “don’t catch it easily, they don’t bring it home easily,” a new study from South Korea found that children between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.

“If your child had a genetic disease, a heart disease, a lung disease, maybe had a transplant, you would probably consider doing virtual schooling until we have this virus more under control,” Kass says. “We also know that children don’t live by themselves. A lot of times they live with parents or even grandparents who may be at risk for complications from the coronavirus. And even if those children don’t get sick themselves, if they can get the virus and bring it home, sometimes it ends up sending Grandma to the hospital.”

And though many have rallied around wearing or rejecting masks as some kind of political statement, Kass says your child’s ability to attend school in person may hinge on whether they can handle wearing one all day; health experts say the evidence is clear that masks can help stem the spread of COVID-19.

“It doesn’t mean that every school is going to require masking for the entire day, but it does mean that parents need to start getting their kids comfortable with wearing a mask and sitting in a mask while learning,” Kass says. “If your child is not comfortable wearing a mask, or if they take it off randomly … remember that they could put themselves and other children at risk.”

Children wearing face masks play on their scooters during the coronavirus pandemic on April 25, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Children wearing face masks in New York City in April. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

The CDC has also published a list of guidelines for schools to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, including adequate ventilation and the installation of physical barriers like sneeze guards in areas where social distancing isn’t possible. But implementation is optional and will likely vary by state and district. Kass recommends that parents and caregivers familiarize themselves with their school’s reopening plan and make sure they’re comfortable with it.

“We’re not going to be able to tell you everything to look out for,” Kass says. “What we need to know is, are you comfortable with your school’s plan? Do you know who to ask if you have a question? Is there a way to get your child tested if they’re sent home, and where do those results go? These are all questions you’re going to have to ask of your principal, your PTA president or somebody who’s representing your school or the district before you decide whether or not to send your child to in-person school this fall.”

The CDC has stressed the importance of “reopening America’s schools this fall,” citing the benefits of in-person learning, such as social and emotional skill development and school nutrition programs, noting that low-income and minority children are disproportionately harmed by school closures. But while in-person learning is undoubtedly essential under normal circumstances, given the current situation, many parents aren’t so sure. According to a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs, only about 1 in 10 Americans think daycare centers, preschools or K-12 schools should open without restrictions, and 31 percent of Americans think there should be no in-person instruction at all this fall.

“We all know that school is more than just a place you get educated,” Kass says. “It’s a place where children are supported; it’s a place where they meet their peers. There’s a lot of mental, psychological, social support that happens at schools.” But she also emphasizes the need for patience and flexibility this school year — from parents and educators as well as employers.

“We might send our kids to in-person school and find out that the virus is out of control or it’s just not safe and be homeschooling again. We might start out homeschooling and then find out that we can send our kids back to school. Childcare from school is not going to be reliable. And it’s important that our employers recognize that as well. We have to be considerate of each other. We have to lead with humanity.”


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