Ready for back to school? Doctors share the one thing you need to do that you might not have thought of

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The tough choice of whether to send your child to school in person or have them attend virtually is one that most parents are grappling with right now. But when taking stock of everything to consider before making your decision, some experts think we may be overlooking one critical step—which involves finding out two important pieces of information.

During a recent Facebook live event with ParentsTogether, Dara Kass, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, recommended parents go beyond asking schools about mask-wearing and social distancing and also consider the following two questions: 

  • How easy is it to get a COVID test (if your child should need one)?
  • What is the turnaround time for results? 

It’s easy to focus on virus prevention when deciding whether to send your child to school in person, but the reality is that many schools and camps that have already opened are seeing an increase in infections among teachers and students alike. Knowing what comes next if that were to happen at your child’s school can impact their learning, because even if your child turns out not to be sick, they’ll still miss time in the classroom. 

According to Dr. Kass, New York City schools released their guidelines, which recommend that anyone with symptoms—which include many very common ailments like fatigue and headache—should stay home for 14 days. “That’s unsustainable,” she says, noting that the only way to go back sooner is to get tested. But the key isn’t just testing, it’s fast testing. “If [the turn around time to get results] is anything greater than five days,” she points out, “you’re losing a full week of school, just in case” every time your kiddo has a runny nose.

The availability of tests in large part depends on where you live, but that’s changing now that at-home tests are becoming more prevalent. Either way, the turnaround time for results largely depends on the type of test available to you. 

The availability and speed of testing varies

There are currently three different types of tests for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Point-of-care tests, which often provide results at the testing site in less than an hour; at-home tests you administer yourself then mail in a nasal or saliva swab sample for analysis at a lab; and on-site lab tests that require several days to analyze for results. If you live in an area where there is a high demand for testing, results can take even longer for lab tests. 

It’s important to note that home tests tend to be pricey, and fewer than 10 of them have been authorized by the Food & Drug Administration. Of those that have been given the green light, most claim to provide results within 24 to 72 hours, but that largely depends on the U.S. Postal System, which it bears mention is currently in disarray, with many citizens reporting their mail is delayed. 

So how do you know if testing is readily available and how long it takes to get results where you live? There’s no single source for the best answer, but experts suggest checking with your healthcare provider or a telemedicine service first to make sure your child needs to be tested (though your school may also have their own specific guidelines to follow). They should also be able to tell you how best to get a test where you live. Keep in mind that many states that provide drive-through testing require a doctor’s order, so it’s not always possible to skip this step. If you have an iPhone, Apple recently added testing sites to its Maps app, so it’s easier to pinpoint the one closest to you. You can also check your state or local health department website for the latest information about your area’s testing sites. The CDC has a thorough compilation of health departments on its website that makes it easy to find yours. 

If you’re considering sending your child to school in person, Dr. Kass adds that it’s also good to know if yours has a nurse, just in case a child gets sick during the school day. Unfortunately, “only one-third of American schools have a nurse on staff,” she says. This makes knowing what protocols your child’s school has in place in the event someone gets sick more important than ever. 

The key thing to remember is that it’s not just about preventing your child from coming in contact with the virus in school (though that’s undoubtedly important)—it’s also about knowing what happens next if they do. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.