Since the pandemic continues to devastate the country as we near the end of 2020, parents are again left with a tough decision about whether to send kids to in-person school, much like in the fall. In many districts, there is a “choice” period opening up where families can decide whether to send their kids to in-person school for the next semester, or stick with/switch to all-remote learning, or choose some kind of hybrid model.
It’s bound to be a predicament for families, since there are so many confusing factors—and those factors vary so much according to your location, school district, and personal circumstances. Making a smart choice will definitely take some research. So, besides your own work schedule and your child’s desire to be in school (or not), here are some of the most important factors to look into.
What is the rate of coronavirus spread in your state and county? Check the comprehensive map and data put together by Johns Hopkins University. To use this tool, select your state, then county. Click on your county on the map, and a box will pop up with more information. Scroll within the box to the infographic and click on it to enlarge. Then you can see more detailed information, such as the case trend over the past two weeks and the fatality rate for your state.
According to the CDC, moderate risk of transmission in schools can be expected with 20-50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days, or a 5-8 percent positive test rate. Higher risk is indicated by 50-200 new cases per 100,000 or an 8-10 percent positive test rate.
Note that communities that have higher rates of compliance with simple prevention measures such as mask wearing and social distancing have higher rates of success with school reopenings. In other words, “You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” says Benjamin Linas, MD, MPH, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine.
Consider your child’s age and your family’s health risks. Research has shown that young children of preschool and elementary age are less likely to get infected and less likely to spread the virus than teenagers and adults are. You might also be struggling to otherwise find childcare for young kids without school. Another factor to consider is whether your children are in regular contact with any elderly or high-risk people—because if so, you’d probably be more worried about their potentially increased exposure to the virus by attending in-person school.
Your school district
In addition to general trends in your community, how has your school district been faring with Covid-19 cases? You may have access to coronavirus-specific updates from your school or local government. You can also check the Covid-19 School Response dashboard created by Brown University economist Emily Oster, PhD, to get a sense of how much the virus is spreading in schools similar to yours. For example, you can filter by state, grade level, type of school, hybrid or fully in-person schedule, and whether masks are required of students. Note that the school dashboard does not include every school or every state, only those that have voluntarily reported the data.
Overall, Dr. Oster and other researchers have been pleased to report that schools don’t usually become superspreading sites. The schools that are doing the best after reopening are schools that do not have their full population attending at the same time, in order to prevent overcrowding.
Your school’s safety measures
You will need to consider what precautions your child’s school is taking to keep families, staff, and community members safe during the ongoing pandemic. Here are some general questions to find out the answers to—and compare them to your area’s Covid-19 risk to determine if they are appropriate:
- Are masks required or encouraged for students and staff? And even more importantly, how many students and staff are actually wearing masks properly?
- Is the school taking measures to reduce class sizes and/or prevent unnecessary mixing among different groups of students and teachers?
- How safe is the commute to school, especially if it’s via school bus, public transportation, or car pool?
- Does the school have a rigorous, science-based protocol for dealing with illnesses of all kinds? What is the plan for when a student feels sick with any potentially related symptoms, or when a member of the school community tests positive for Covid-19 (or is awaiting a test)?
- Is the school doing adequate contact tracing for positive and suspected positive cases?
Here’s a more detailed set of questions you can ask to determine if your school is making an adequate effort to reduce the likelihood of viral spread. You may already know some of these answers, if your child has been attending in-person school. If you’ve been learning remotely and you’re considering going back in person, ask teachers, administrators, and parents of kids who are currently going to class in the building about their experiences.
If you do choose in-person school, you’ll need to know: How easy will it be for your child to get a Covid-19 diagnostic test in case they have any of the symptoms on this list, or if a classmate or close contact tests positive? And how long will it take to get the results? Call your family’s pediatrician or other health providers, or check your local health department’s coronavirus resources, to find out more.
Your mental health
To make your final decision, you’ll also need to think about the overall mental health impact for your family. Reflect on how the current semester is going—ask for your child’s honest assessment as well. Is your child thriving or struggling with remote learning? Is the anxiety of in-person school, with all the emails about new Covid-19 cases, worth it for you and your child’s mental health?
This quiz created by ParentsTogether can help guide you through some of these overwhelming questions. The bottom line is that there is no one right choice. There are still plenty of unknowns, and currently there is no way to either go back to normal or get the Covid-19 risk down to zero, no matter what you choose. However, armed with more information from reliable sources, you may be able to land on a decision that feels most realistic for your family right now.