It’s the question weighing on every parent’s mind: Given the ongoing threat of the coronavirus, is it a good idea for my kid to return to the classroom?
As of last week, 17 of the nation’s 20 largest K-12 school districts were preparing to start the academic year with online-only instruction, according to Education Week magazine. One major exception is New York City; despite criticism from teachers and parents, the nation’s largest school district plans to do hybrid learning, where students would physically go to the classroom part-time.
Colleges around the country are largely opting for online learning.
The reason many parents favor remote learning is pretty clear: The U.S. is still dealing with a resurgence of the coronavirus in many parts of the country. And the pandemic could get worse before it gets any better.
School districts that have already reopened have paid a price for it. A Mississippi school district has ordered 122 students to self-quarantine after seven students and a teacher tested positive for COVID-19 following the resumption of in-person classes last week, a district spokesperson said.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report said evidence shows children are at lower risk from developing severe cases of COVID-19, they can still become infected. In the last two weeks of July, nearly 100,000 children in the U.S. tested positive for the coronavirus.
Of course, it’s also understandable why a parent would want their children to head back to traditional school. In June ― which feels like a lifetime ago ― doctors with the American Academy of Pediatrics said they were “strongly” in favor of in-person learning, while acknowledging that universal mask-wearing among kids may not be realistic.
The group noted that the “negative impacts” on children of school closures in the spring are already evident. One research paper estimates that the 55 million U.S. students who were out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic may have lost roughly a third of the last academic year’s usual progress in reading and as much as half of their usual progress in math. (And then, of course, there’s the lack of socializing that comes with remote learning.)
It’s a complicated situation ― even pediatricians will admit as much. As districts navigate and potentially reconsider their reopening plans, we decided to ask pediatricians across the country what they want for their kids this school year.
The question we asked was simple: “Do you want your child’s school to reopen in the fall?” Here’s what they had to say. (Some doctors asked to remain anonymous.)
“It’s my job to protect my children’s health and I intend to do just that by keeping my kids home from school.”
“I do not want my kids returning to school as my children’s school is not planning to follow the CDC guidelines for reopening. They’re 15 and 17. As much as I would like for my kids to return to school (and I really do!), I don’t want them to go at the cost of their safety. In my opinion, if a school isn’t social distancing or requiring masks when social distancing isn’t possible, then that school is not safe for children. It’s my job to protect my children’s health and I intend to do just that by keeping my kids home from school. I am aware that not all parents have the luxury of making that choice and I am fighting for schools to do the right thing and open safely so all parents can keep their children safe from COVID-19.” ― Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician who’s been in practice for 17 years and works in Georgia (Dolgoff is also a spokesperson for the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
“I would love for school to feel more normal but as a pediatrician and a mom, I am torn.”
“I have two children, ages 4 and 6. My 6-year-old will be entering kindergarten this fall. I value the social interactions, relationship building and education that comes with in-person learning that just cannot occur in the same way from distance learning. I would love for school to feel more normal but as a pediatrician and a mom, I am torn. Children can get COVID. They are not immune to the disease. Some experience long-lasting outcomes that we are just beginning to understand as a medical community. And, tragically, some children die from COVID. We also know that children can spread COVID. I can’t imagine how my sensitive kindergartener would feel if he brought home the infection that made someone in our family critically ill.
“As it is, my children’s schools will place them into smaller groups this year rather than fit all of them into a single larger class. Masks are required. Social distancing will be attempted. Hopefully, staff and families will be screened daily for symptoms prior to arrival, ventilation will be maximized, classes will be held outdoors for as long as reasonable, and testing becomes readily available.
“Emotionally, I believe that these layers of defense will help. But I needed more data, so I did some math. For me, I would comfortably send my child to school with these safety protocols if the risk that someone had COVID in his smaller pod was less than 5%. In San Francisco, where I live, a group of 10 people has a 9% to 17% chance that someone in the group has COVID. If this holds true for children in schools, do I plan to knowingly send my child anywhere where there is a 9% chance of COVID? For me, no way. Until the rates of COVID decrease to a lower level or we have an effective vaccine or treatment, we will keep our children out of school. An acceptable level of risk is going to be different for every family and every circumstance. Splitting my time between work and supporting my boys throughout the day will be difficult, but I am hoping we can lower the rate of COVID and lower the risk of COVID for our students, staff and teachers.” ― Natasha Agbai, a pediatrician who’s been in practice for 12 years and works at Discover Health Medical Group in San Francisco
“The situation is not that straightforward so I think it will have to be left up to each parent.”
“School potentially starting in one month feels like a lifetime in a pandemic. I’ve been a pediatrician practicing for almost 15 years and I will have a 13-year-old starting high school in the fall. As a pediatrician and as a mother, I feel like it’s all what our acceptable level of risk is. Many parents need to get back to work in order to feed their families. The situation is not that straightforward so I think it will have to be left up to each parent. Having a child entering high school, although her social-emotional needs are extremely important, I just feel like it would be so much safer if I could keep her home and that would be my preference. At least I’d like to see how things play out as the flu season enters.” ― A New York-based pediatrician who’s been in practice for almost 15 years
“I want them to go back to school so badly but we just don’t have enough science and data.”
“I have an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old, and a 1-and-a-half-year-old. If I’m being truly thoughtful about this, I just don’t think our country is in a place where we can safely send our children back to school yet. I see how my children are handling this, and I see the stress and anxiety and the sadness over not being able to see friends. So I get the social-emotional context of all of this on a personal level. I also see it daily in my patients. So many of the kiddos I take care of are stressed, depressed, lonely. I want them to go back to school so badly. But we just don’t have enough science and data to show us how to safely approach this yet. ... My kids’ school district will be starting all virtual classes for the first couple of months and then making a decision about returning or not.” ― A Southern California pediatrician in practice for 10 years
“We have decided that the benefits of returning to school in-person outweigh our risks.”
“I am a pediatrician, my husband is an anesthesiologist, and our children are 10 and 12 years old. There are obvious risks and benefits to any choice that you make for your family in regards to school, whether you keep them at home or send them back face-to-face. I’m thankful that we do have choices because many other families do not have choices at this time. Based on our family’s current situation (we are all healthy with no medical conditions), we have decided that the benefits of returning to school in-person outweigh our risks. This choice is not one-size-fits-all, and we may have chosen differently if our kids had underlying medical conditions or if we had an older family member living with us. I encourage anybody who is struggling with their decision about school to reach out to their primary care pediatrician or physician to help guide them.” ― An Orlando, Florida-based pediatrician in practice for 10 years
“Schools should only open when community spread is consistently slowed down.”
“I would love for my kids to go back to school. They are both in high school and really need a reason to get up, get dressed and get out of the house. My son is a senior and his classes are mostly focused on making and producing music. It’s hard to have band class from home! However, I don’t want them going into a situation that isn’t safe. I expect the school to only open when extensive mitigation strategies can be put in place. In accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools should only open when community spread is consistently slowed down and should have in place mask mandates, schedules that allow for as little movement between classes as possible, distanced desks, use of outside spaces, frequent sanitation of surfaces, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the campus. They should also take steps to prevent teachers and staff gathering in close spaces. Furthermore, they should also be prepared to move fluidly between online and in-person classes as COVID cases require and for children who are at high risk of illness.
“When I counsel families, I recommend they think about their own risk factors and whether or not they are comfortable with what their school or district is doing to decrease the risk of spread. Parents also need to consider if they can be home with their child to facilitate home education or not. In order to accommodate working parents, my hope is that schools are capable of instituting these mitigation strategies if and when they are ready to open.” ― Jaime Friedman, a pediatrician with a practice in San Diego (Friedman is also the director of marketing at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group.)
“I am worried we are failing our next generation.”
“Kids get so many benefits from school: In addition to learning, they also gain social skills, nutrition, special education, and therapy services. Selfishly, I also benefit by getting more me time and quiet workspace if my kids are at school. But community spread of COVID-19 remains too high for safe return to school. ... My kids are 5 years old and 8 years old. I also have a 7-month-old at home with my mom who stays with us to help with the kids. I’m grateful my kids will probably be fine with their learning. I have plenty of workbooks and print worksheets for them. We read together and play Sight Word Bingo and board games. Honestly, I’m not that worried about my kids. I’m worried that the longer school stays virtual, the wider the health and economic disparities become to the point where it will be too difficult to catch up and fully recover. I am worried we are failing our next generation.” ― Joannie Yeh, a pediatrician for eight years with a practice in the Philadelphia suburbs who also blogs at Betamomma.com
“[My son] really doesn’t feel he learns well remotely.”
“I have two children. My younger child literally graduated from high school officially today. He will be enrolled at a small liberal arts college in New England as a freshman in three weeks if the region can keep transmission low. We are holding our breath to see what happens. He really doesn’t feel he learns well remotely and he’d just have more months alone studying in our house while his parents work and are gone every day.
“As colleges decide to go remote, we’ve been sent stricter quarantine and testing rules from the college, some more remote course options (but about 50% in-person or hybrid), and a lot of strategies to keep college-age students healthy. For my son’s social and emotional growth and development, we made the family decision for him to start his college career in this surrealistic manner in late August. We hope that the college’s evidence-based planning and his behavior will work together to keep him safe. My guy is good at wearing a mask and distancing so he gets the opportunity to move to college.
“Every child, whether age 4, 10, 14, or 19, is different and I support families to make the best decisions with the science I can provide. I don’t have a crystal ball. And in some hot spots, like where my great-nieces and great-nephew live, I’d be very unhappy for them to go to in-person school until infection rates go down. As I keep up with the current studies, I feel comfortable in the science we know, but we don’t know a lot so I just help busy and anxious parents explore their own situation and make a decision that works for their families.” ― Mary Beth Miotto, a pediatrician for 25 years with a practice in Northborough, Massachusetts
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.