Is It Safe to Send Your Child Back to School During COVID-19? Advice From Connecticut Children’s Physician-in-Chief

Right now, we know there’s one question at the top of many parents’ minds: Is it safe to send my child back to school this fall?

Physician-in-Chief Juan Salazar, MD, MPH, joins the blog to respond.

Should I send my child back to school?

I wish I could give a simple yes or no. The truth is, this is complicated. There is no perfect choice, so each family will need to weigh the benefits and risks and make their own decision. It comes down to each child’s needs, each family’s circumstances and what’s happening with the virus locally.

What are the benefits for going back to school?

When it comes to education, studies show that nothing comes close to the experience of in-person learning. Classrooms provide stimulating, developmentally-appropriate settings that are difficult for most families to replicate at home. If your child struggles to stay on task or with time management, the structure of a physical classroom can be especially important to their academic development, and they’ll often have access to services at school that they can’t get from home. This may be especially true for kids with disabilities or special needs.

Children and teens need social interaction in order to develop language, communication, social and interpersonal skills. Being in a classroom teaches kids how to be part of a community – resolving conflicts, problem-solving and cooperating with others. It’s also key for their emotional wellbeing; kids often receive emotional and psychological support from peers and teachers in person that they don’t receive remotely.

And of course, school is a safe environment that provides child care and critical services like meal programs.

What are the risks for going back to school?

There is no way to open schools without opening up some risk of COVID-19 spread.

The good news is that, with the rare exception of MIS-C, kids appear far less likely than adults to become seriously ill from COVID-19. And some research shows that kids who are under the age of 12 are less likely to spread the virus to other people than older kids and adults.

The bad news is that teenagers seem to be very strong COVID-19 spreaders, so if your teen becomes infected at school, there’s a good chance they’ll bring it home. And even for younger kids, although the chance is smaller, there’s no guarantee they won’t become seriously sick or infect someone in your household. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this disease.

> Does your child have asthma? A pediatric asthma expert shares advice on school and day care during COVID-19.

How will schools control possible outbreaks?

It’s absolutely critical that schools have protocols for masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently and sanitizing everywhere.

Schools will try to ensure that all staff and students who can safely wear masks do so. They’re working with the physical setup of school buildings to maximize space for social distancing – so instead of sitting at clusters of desks, each student will likely be spaced at least several feet from others. They’re keeping class sizes small, and staggering when students eat lunch, use playgrounds and have passing time between classes. They’re also strengthening cleaning and sanitizing procedures, and taking steps for better air ventilation, whether that means opening windows or installing air filtration systems.

Many schools are creating hybrid models: some days in classrooms and other days online, depending on the comfort of families and community spread of the virus. They’re also developing virtual, at-home lesson plans for children whose families prefer to keep them home.

In Connecticut, the governor’s Adapt, Advance, Achieve plan includes guidance for schools to divide students into “cohorts,” or small groups that stay the same from day to day. Students stay with these groups across classes, lunch periods, recess, etc. This limits the number of other students and staff they’re exposed to, and makes it easier to trace any outbreaks. When an outbreak occurs, the school can close a classroom and have just that group of students and staff quarantine at home, rather than closing an entire district.

> For more helpful resources, check out our Back to School Kit

How will schools catch outbreaks early enough to prevent wide spread?

Each town has to very closely watch coronavirus cases at schools and be ready to close when an outbreak occurs. School districts should create a health monitoring plan to keep track of symptoms that could be related to the virus, and identify trends in attendance that could indicate an unreported spread. They need access to testing and clear protocols for notification and response if cases are identified.

Studies show that teens may be able to transmit the virus more easily than younger children, so high schools in particular should be prepared for spikes in infection. When that happens, each classroom, school or town has to be ready to close.

Ideally, schools would have a system for testing and daily temperature screenings – but the reality is that this may be impossible due to lack of funding and staff. Ultimately, the responsibility to monitor students’ symptoms and COVID-19 exposure will fall to parents. Check your child’s temperature every day and look for other possible COVID-19 symptoms and exposure. Don’t allow your child to go into school if they might be infected or exposed.

What about contact sports?

It’s going to be up to the school districts to figure this out. I think it’s going to be difficult to safely hold contact sports like tackle football. The players are in very close proximity, breathing hard and often shouting. These are all ways that the virus spreads. If an older child is shedding virus and playing a contact sport, there’s a good chance they’ll infect other players.

What about a vaccine?

The vaccine trials we’re hearing about are being tested on individuals age 18 and over. After they’ve been proven safe for that population, they’ll test children under 18. In other words, it will still be many months before a vaccine is available for schools.

Should my child wear a mask or face covering to school?

Yes. Here’s one way to think about it: We’re all eager for a coronavirus vaccine. But in a sense, we do have an active vaccine right now, and it’s called a mask. If you use a mask, you’re changing the dynamic of this virus by significantly decreasing its spread in the community. If we all use masks while we wait for a vaccine, that’s quite effective. (Is your child struggling with wearing a mask? Try these tips.)

Is sending my child back to school worth the risk?

It depends on the health of your child, the health of the family members you have at home, the health of the community and your child’s individual needs when it comes to learning and social-emotional development.

This is a complicated issue. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding the benefits and the risks, and weighing what you’re comfortable with for your family. For help, read A Checklist to Help Parents Decide: Send Kids Back to School or Keep Them Home During COVID-19?

Check out all of our coronavirus resources for families >>

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