Reopening Schools: What are parents to do?
As the end of summer rapidly approaches, one of the most contentious topics nationwide is whether or not to reopen schools. As has sadly become the norm, this issue has polarized our communities and become highly contentious.
Like many of you, I am a parent of school age children and, like you, I have been forced to grapple with this issue as the new school year approaches. As parents we do not control the options handed to us by our school districts, though we can and should let our districts know our preferences whether through formal parent surveys or by contacting our district directly.
Some districts may offer only a single option for the fall term, though it appears that many will offer multiple options. In our school district, we have been given two options: (1) beginning the school year online then transitioning to in-person attendance after 3 weeks, with mitigation protocols in place; or (2) full-time online school.
School districts must take into account the welfare of teachers, administrators, and other school employees, not only the welfare of our children and their families. Since parents do not have direct control over these decisions, this article will focus on that part of the decision that parents can control.
A third option theoretically available to all of us is choosing to home school our kids—an option more parents are exploring as interest in home schooling is rising across the U.S. That said, home schooling is not a viable option for everyone, so I will focus on in-person attendance vs. full-time online schooling.
With so many conflicting opinions and so much at stake, how are we to decide what is best for our children and our families?
I will attempt to simplify this complex and emotional issue by focusing on the key issues involved in this decision. I do not think there is one right answer for all of us and, I want to emphasize upfront, that there is no zero-risk option available. In my opinion, anyone who suggests that such an option exists is not looking at the situation holistically.
When considering what to do, there are two main factors to consider:
- Is the child or someone else in the family at high risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19?
- Is the child at risk of significant setbacks academically, developmentally, or emotionally if not attending school in-person?
Now, let’s address each of these in greater detail.
Are Children at High Risk?
Children are not at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease. The mainstream media has focused disproportionately on the relatively small number of young adults and children who have suffered from severe cases of COVID-19. While these cases are unquestionably tragic, they are extreme outliers.
A good example is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). It has received a great deal of attention and provoked fear among parents, yet according to a recent study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, there have been a total of 186 cases with 4 deaths. Parents need not worry about the effects of COVID-19 on their children, with some exceptions, such as children with cystic fibrosis.
Who is at High Risk?
The two groups at the highest risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19 are older people and people with underlying chronic diseases. When age and chronic disease are combined—as is all too common in the United States—it is a perfect storm.
According to CDC data, more than 80% of deaths have been in those 65 years of age or older. If you include people 55 and older, this age group accounts for more than 90 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.
The chronic diseases that put people at greatest risk are serious heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, COPD, sickle cell disease, and obesity. Obesity is the primary factor that puts younger people at risk.
Can Children Pass COVID-19 to Adults?
In breaking down the issue of risk, we have so far determined that children are at low risk of serious illness, while older adults, and adults with certain chronic diseases are at high risk.
If our kids are low risk, but some of the adults they interact with at home might be high risk, then we need to know whether or not children can pass the virus onto adults as part of making a decision about sending our kids back to school.
A new study from South Korea is the largest to date examining viral transmission. Researchers used viral testing and contact tracing to determine how easily the virus spreads from one infected person to the people they come in contact with. Children ages 10-19 transmitted the disease as effectively as adults, while children younger than 10 were much less likely to infect others.
What About Teachers?
I should mention at this point that the issues of risk and the transmissibility of the virus apply to teachers and other school employees just as they do to parents. Though teachers are not the focus of this article, it is understandable that teachers would have concerns about returning to their classrooms. Their concerns need to be addressed and validated as part of the larger issue of whether to reopen schools in the fall.
It is up to the leaders of our school districts to protect teachers on the front lines by identifying teachers who are at high-risk and giving them alternative work options, such as teaching online courses to students who opt out of in-person schooling. Such an approach would allow schools to open safely, while protecting teachers at high risk.
Thankfully, this virus is not life threatening to children, or low-risk adults. I would hope that such an approach may ease the fears of teachers who have no option but to return to their classrooms.
So, what are the risks of not sending our kids back to school?
This is a question that has been addressed inadequately by the mainstream media, yet it is an all-important question in weighing the benefits and risks of in-person schooling.
Falling Behind Academically
Our kids have fallen behind academically. A recent analysis found that, on average, American children are 7 months behind academically as a result of pandemic-related school closures. The setback is even larger for minority students: 9 months on average for Latino children and 10 months on average for black children. The effects of school closures appear to be greatest in the youngest children. Based on this data, it appears that the online education provided by school districts across the country is not equivalent to the learning that happens inside schools.
Effects on Mental Health
The pandemic is having a negative impact on our children’s emotional wellbeing. A systematic review found that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of depression and anxiety in previously healthy kids. The longer the duration of the loneliness, the greater the risk.
Another study found significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety in Chinese children following the outbreak of COVID-19. And, 29% of American parents say their children are “’already experiencing harm’ to their emotional or mental health due to the social strain and closures.”
Under normal circumstances, our children spend 35 hours a week or more in school. This is where the bulk of their social interactions occur and, for many, some of their closest social connections are with schoolmates.
Putting it All Together
In deciding whether to send our children back to school or opt for online instruction, we need to weigh the risks to adults with whom our children are in close contact and the negative effects of keeping our kids out of school.
The situation is different for all of us. In our home, all of the adults with whom my children interact regularly are low risk, yet my children have already exhibited signs of emotional distress as a result of the closures and social isolation, and, despite our best efforts, their education was sub-par to close out last school year. For us, the benefits of returning to school outweigh the risks.
Other families may have elderly grandparents living in the same household or a parent with one or more high-risk chronic diseases, so the decision risk to benefit ratio may favor keeping the kids at home.
Most important, we must accept that in every case, there is no zero-risk option. If kids are kept at home, the risk of falling behind academically or suffering emotionally will undoubtedly be higher. If kids are sent to school, the risk of exposure to the virus will increase.
Other factors that impact this decision, include:
- The prevalence of the virus in the community in which you live. For example, here in Arizona, cases surged in late June and early July, but have witnessed a steep decline over the last 3 weeks.
- Your capacity as a parent to keep your children at home when considering work obligations, health, and other factors.
For many of us, this is one of the most difficult decisions we have had to make. For others, the best course of action may be clear. Either way, thinking though the decision in the manner proposed above, should help you to gain clarity in making the choice.
We must keep in mind, conditions may change. We must commit to remaining flexible and resilient in the face of new circumstances. We are all in this together.
If you are a patient at Arizona Natural Health Center, do not hesitate to discuss the matter with your doctor if you feel we can help.
I wish all of you continued health and happiness during these trying times. Do know that this pandemic will most certainly end, and I truly believe we will be stronger for it.