To School or Not to School

Illustrated by Jennifer Broza

Should we send children back to school during a pandemic? A year ago, attending school would have been mandatory. Now it’s up to the parents. How have parents made this difficult decision, and what is the CDC’s advice? On their website, there is a “School Decision-Making Tool for Parents, Caregivers and Guardians.” [1] The purpose of the tool is to help all people raising school-aged children to make appropriate decisions about their childrens’ learning this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most important questions to determine  is whether or not parents and guardians will send their children back to school for in-person education or interact with teachers remotely. Of course, the tool won’t tell anyone definitively what to do,but the CDC strongly suggests parents get in touch with their childrens’ school administration to find out more information or articulate their specific concerns. 

The tool asks questions about how comfortable parents feel sending their children to school, the feasibility of virtual learning, academic and social-emotional wellbeing and school based services, such as Individualized Education Programs and nutrition services like breakfast and lunch. There are 27 questions, and caretakers are encouraged to answer with responses, such as,  “agree,” “disagree,” “unsure” and “does not apply.” The point is this: the decision to send children back to school or not is a complicated and personal one. It comes down to whether or not parents can support at-home learning, feel comfortable with their school’s reopening plan (and plans for when someone inevitably tests positive) and need assistance with providing special education programs, behavioral services  and meals for their children. It depends on the location of the child and the caretaker, how well their respective state has gained control over the virus and whether there is safe transportation to and from schools. There may not be a right decision, and the best decision may change over time. As helpful as the tool may be, it allocates  a significant amount of responsibility onto the parents, who may have to watch over their children during remote classes or ensure that they themselves quarantine in the event of an outbreak. 

Beyond personal feasibility and preference lie questions that don’t yet have definitive answers, such as how often children become infected [2], how sick they get and how much they spread the virus to adults. Studying transmission is very difficult, and though COVID-19 cases in children have been relatively low, they are on the rise.  Another critical question (and arguably the most important) is what local transmission is like; in places with fewer cases, the chance that in-person learning will work smoothly is higher. COVID-19 can spread through close contact with others who are infectious, breathing in viral particles present in the air and touching surfaces that contain the virus [3]. As parents start making this complex decision with little definitive scientific information, and in places where the magnitude of spread can quickly shift from better to worse, it will be important for schools to remain both flexible and supportive throughout the school year. And perhaps most importantly, it will require everyone, including parents, school administrators, teachers and tutors to understand that this will be anything but a normal school year. Both parents and children will be met with unusual challenges, many going beyond health concerns; with limited social contact, everyone will feel the strain of social distancing. Checking in on the mental well-being of children (and their guardians) will be imperative. Prioritizing safe social interaction, even if children can’t hug their friends, is important for a healthy school-year. 

The decision to send children back to school is difficult, because there is substantial support for both sides. Those in favor of sending children back to school focus on the fact that children learn better in a traditional educational environment, and it is both challenging and even unhealthy for children to sit in front of a computer screen for many hours (eye strain is a concern, often called “computer vision syndrome”) [4]. Social interaction in school also has benefits to children’s mental well-being; staying home and severely limiting social interaction could be detrimental [5].  Some parents are considered essential workers and cannot stay home to watch their children or help them with schoolwork, and this may cause an economic strain on families who cannot hire babysitters or nannies, according to WUSTL’s Covid-19 course by Robin Nelson. Children who get most of their meals at school will need to be provided meals at home, which may not be feasible.  Children living in abusive homes may be even more exposed to unsafe living conditions without the escape that school provides and  the potential for intervention from teachers and other administrators. 

On the other hand, sending children back to school puts at risk both public health and the safety of children and teachers. Children living with immunocompromised or at-risk adults could spread the virus to their caretakers. Opening schools and risking a spread of COVID-19 could prolong the pandemic. Teachers will be put in particularly difficult positions–both risking their health and potentially their jobs, if they are not able to work. Should widespread viral infections occur in school, they could be difficult and costly to contain. In addition, children may have difficulty despite being in the classroom–long hours of mask-wearing is difficult for children of any age, and learning from teachers without being able to read lips and facial expressions might pose more problems. Group work will be difficult with social distancing measures in place. With all of these inconveniences, many guardians and school administrators may decide that the learning experience will be more valuable at home. 

Fortunately, we are in somewhat of a better position this Fall–schools were completely unprepared for learning when they shut down in the Spring. Since then, schools have made modifications to their plans, have had time to research best health practices and properly train teachers. Parents have had the experience of remote learning with their children and have some insight about how their child functions in that environment. No matter which way children go back to school, whether it be in person or online, both parents, children and administrators are more prepared than they were in March. 

Edited by: Anhthi Luong
Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza

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