[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to several experts: "Under what circumstances would you send a child back to school, given that the virus is not going away anytime soon?"]
It is August. The start date of school is quickly approaching. Decisions must be made about whether to send our children back. As a physician, a public health researcher, and the mother of two school-aged children, I have few clear answers.
Let me start with the obvious. My kids, and all kids, deserve a safe, in-person school year. We know the data on the adverse effects of school closure on kids, particularly for those who are already vulnerable. I also know, on a personal level, that distance learning is no substitute for in-person schooling. Homeschooling may be great for those with the privilege to do it, but I – like many Americans – am unable to quit my job, and children need more than a screen to learn.
Moreover, safe school reopening should not be an impossible dream. I and many other physicians, teachers, and scientists have described the bare minimum that we need to safely reopen schools: a stable, low rate of COVID-19 in the community; funding and mandates for basic public health precautions (like universal masking and small, stable classes) in the schools; and easy access to testing for kids and teachers. This has been achieved, successfully, in other countries.
Unfortunately, the United States has squandered its opportunity to do right by families. Across our country, rates of COVID-19 are rising. Few states have been able to sustain a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent – the maximum that most of us, in the public health world, would tolerate. Delays in testing are rampant. Systemic under-funding of public schools means that many schools simply can’t afford to put basic public health measures in place. Worst, science denialism (and the spread of quack conspiracy theories online) means that many communities are fighting even the most basic of safety precautions.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that – as many of us suspected all along – kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19. This data increases the risk calculus. Our kids are not immune, and neither are we.
Given that the necessary societal interventions simply have not happened, most American families are therefore left making an individual choice: do I send my kid to school? Or not? There are five key questions for parents to ponder when making the difficult choice about what to do.
First, we must look at our community. Knowing that testing is difficult to obtain, a true estimate of community prevalence of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. But with a test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, it’s safe to assume that in a school of 500 people, at least 1 will be positive for COVID-19. That is too high for safety. Whether or not the local government does the right thing, I would not send my child to in-person school if my community had these high rates of test positivity.
Second, we must look at our school district’s policies. Will the school mandate masks? Are they cohorting students and teachers in small, stable groups? Do they have contact tracing and isolation policies in place for when a student or teacher inevitably tests positive? Do they have procedures to protect vulnerable teachers and staff? If not, I would not send my child to school. If the district is doing all of the above, I would consider it.
Third, we must look at the health profile of our own kids and families. If my child had chronic medical issues, or if I lived with my elderly parents or were myself at high risk of severe disease, I would not send my child to in-person school.
Fourth, we must do the difficult, ethical weighing of the non-zero risk of infection (even in the safest communities) with the needs of our children. Even in low-prevalence states, there will be infections in the school setting. That said, the small risk of a severe infection may be outweighed by the social, emotional, and financial risk of keeping a child home. This decision must be made on a family-by-family basis. I know my answer; but I cannot provide this answer for others.
Finally, we must call attention to the fact that many kids and families have no options. There are far too many American children who literally depend on their school system for physical, nutritional, emotional, and academic safety. There are too many parents who have no way to earn an income and keep their kids safe without in-person learning. If anyone deserves to be prioritized for in-person schooling, it should be them. (And yes, we should also work to fix the social safety net that leaves these children high and dry.)
As I write this on August 2nd, 2020, I am planning to send my two children back to our public schools for in-person education. We have low rates of infection in our community, we have masking and stable cohorts in place, and my family is relatively healthy. We also depend on the schools to keep my children safe and engaged while I’m working in the ER! I will not hesitate, however, to pull my children out of school should any of these considerations change, if local test positivity rates go up, or if my children report that masking is not the norm in the classroom.
And sadly, I expect that this discussion will soon be a moot point. We continue to fail as a nation at basic public health policies. It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October. Our country has not shown the willpower to control the virus, leaving us all with, literally, no choice to make.
[Editor’s Note: Here’s the other essay in the Back to School series: Masks and Distancing Won’t Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests.]