Education

We Asked Doctors: Is It Safe To Go Back To In-Person School?

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With seemingly no consensus throughout the country on whether children should go back to school in person, online, or both, parents are wondering what factors they should take into consideration as they decide what’s best for their child and their families. 

“This is a big decision with lots of important factors, it’s not a yes or no for anybody anywhere,” says Dara Kass, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and a professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and a mother of three. 

During a recent Facebook live event with Parents-Together, we spoke to Dr. Kass and her colleague, emergency medicine physician Arabia Mollette, M.D. about this issue. Here’s a look at what they think are some of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether it’s safe to send your child back to school in person. 

Check the disease prevalence in your area.

“This has to be the first question you ask yourself,” says Dr. Kass. Any community whose positivity rate is above 5 percent is considered a hot spot by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Right now, many cities in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example, have positivity rates above 5 percent. Many schools are opening anyway in those areas, and some aren’t mandating masks or emphasizing social distancing. If you live in one of those areas, many experts say your school should not be open and if it is, you should consider virtual learning for your child until those rates decrease.

Look at your child and your environment.

Both Dr. Kass and Dr. Mollette suggest that parents with flexible work schedules or flexible childcare should consider keeping children at home. “If you don’t need to send your child to school for childcare purposes, take the opportunity to keep them out of the system so that children who have to go to school can do so with lower density,” Dr. Kass says.

Look at your family.

“Is there a risk to someone in your family if your child comes home and brings coronavirus with them?” asks Dr. Kass. This is especially true if you have a multigenerational family with grandparents living at home. “Think about whether your child may bring the virus home to grandparents who are 70 years old, 80 years old, maybe they’re otherwise immunocompromised or have their own respiratory illnesses,” she says. If that’s the case, in-person learning may not be worth it.

However, not every family has the option or inclination to keep their kids home from school, yet they might still live in a multigenerational household or share space with other high risk individuals—and as Dr. Mollette points out, “In a lot of Latino and African American communities, the grandparents are the caretakers.” In cases when kids are coming home from school to those types of environments, she suggests kids take off their clothes as soon as they get inside, put the clothes in a bag to be laundered, then head to the bathroom to take a shower or bath and change into clean clothes. It’s also important to remind kids that, once they’ve come home from school and taken these steps, they shouldn’t go outside to play again with other kids or else the process will need to be repeated. Dr. Kass, however, cautions that such a procedure might be traumatic for some kids, so a hand sanitizer by the door might be sufficient as long as the kids have been diligent about wearing masks and washing their hands at school. 

Consider your child’s teachers.

“Many teachers, especially public school teachers, are feeling ostracized from the conversation about going back to school,” Dr. Mollette says. “In many cases, private and charter schools have the funds to hire healthcare professionals to teach the students, the teachers, and the staff, such as the cafeteria workers, how to properly put on a mask and maybe other protective equipment.” But most public schools simply don’t have those resources, and teachers and staff are left to fend for themselves. 

This means your child’s learning environment may be stocked with educators who want to do the right thing, but don’t always know how to do that. Unlike healthcare workers who choose a career that trains them to prevent illness and help those who are sick, teachers didn’t sign up for that. If possible, reach out to your child’s teachers this year and ask them what they think; it might help sway your decision or at least give you a better overall picture. And make sure you’re doing everything you can to help keep teachers safe and healthy.

Ask if there is a healthcare ambassador on staff at your child’s school.

Only about a third of U.S. schools have a nurse on staff, so it’s important to ask who at your child’s school is going to determine who’s sick and who’s not, who needs to be checked, and who doesn’t. You should also make sure you’re informed about—and comfortable with—all the new safety protocols and rules at your child’s school. Understanding what systems are in place and who’s in charge of those systems may help you form a better picture of what life will be like for your child—and you—should someone in your child’s class get sick. 

Know the prevalence of testing in your area, including the turnaround time.

With several different types of tests available, each with their own turnaround time, it’s important to know how long it will take to get results where you live if it becomes necessary for your child to get tested. In places such as New York where there’s a mandatory quarantine of 14 days if a child is symptomatic, children who show even the slightest symptoms will be forced to miss a lot of school if they can’t get tested. 

Even with a test, the results turn-around time can still result in significant lost classroom time. “If it’s anything more than five days you’re losing a whole week of school, just in case!” Dr. Kass says. “That’s not sustainable for most parents.” Not only would you have to come up with childcare options and a ‘plan B’ on the spot, your family and that of every other student your child came into contact with would be on pins and needles awaiting results. Knowing what types of testing is available where you live and how long it takes to get results can help you decide if in-person school is right for you.

Arming yourself with this important data should make it easier to decide what makes the most sense for your family. But whatever you do, remember that there’s no universal “right” answer. Every parent and family has its own set of unique circumstances. If we do our best to stay on top of this situation and support each other, we will get through this. It’s a difficult and stressful situation for everyone involved, so both Dr. Mollette and Dr. Kass emphasize the importance of compassion and thinking about what’s best for our communities as we navigate this pandemic together.


Dealing with school closures, childcare issues, or other challenges related to coronavirus? Find support, advice, activities to keep kids entertained, learning opportunities and more in our Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic Facebook Group.

For ongoing updates on coronavirus-related issues and questions that impact children and families, please find additional resources here.




The former Content Director at Parenting, parenting.com 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.