As students return to school in the age of COVID-19, school administrators are navigating the best options for their districts with children’s safety in mind. It’s up to parents to evaluate their school’s guidelines and determine if they feel comfortable sending their children back to school.
“Parents should make the best decision for their children based on their family’s unique situation and their school’s ability—and commitment—to carry out proper safety guidelines,” says Michael Klompas, MD, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Reopening benefits vs. health risks
The potential health risks of opening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic must be weighed against the drawbacks of keeping them closed. While research suggests that children often have milder symptoms than adults when infected with COVID-19, some health statistics are concerning.
As of August, close to 600 people under the age of 18 in the U.S. who were diagnosed with COVID-19 have been hospitalized due to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). MIS-C is a condition where many body parts become inflamed, including the heart, lungs and brain. Experts don’t yet understand what causes MIS-C, but many children with MIS-C had coronavirus or had been near someone with COVID-19.
Children can also have COVID-19 without feeling sick or having symptoms. They can then pass the virus to parents, siblings or grandparents, putting them at risk for infection. “We need to recognize that bringing students back together in school will lead to more infections,” says Dr. Klompas. “Without a doubt, some people will get sick as a result of schools reopening.”
Despite the health risks, it’s important to consider the potential drawbacks of keeping schools closed. These may include:
- Harm to children’s mental and social-emotional well-being
- Severe learning loss
- Lack of access to essential student services such as meals, afternoon childcare and social services
- Financial hardship or other issues for parents who are unable to work due to a lack of access to childcare or technology
What are cohorts and hybrid models?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19 is to use a combination of risk-lowering strategies. Some recommended methods include using cohorts and hybrid models.
Cohorts refer to small groups of students who stay together throughout the school day. This approach lowers exposure, since each cohort doesn’t share physical space with other cohorts. To be effective in separating cohorts, schools can utilize a hybrid model.
The hybrid model involves having each cohort attend school in person on different days of the week or every other week. Cohorts could be used even if all students return to school full time, depending on the size of the school and classrooms. The hybrid model includes both in-person and online instruction. Therefore, it accommodates families who send their kids to school and those who keep them at home.
The hybrid model also enables a simpler transition to remote learning if a cohort needs to quarantine. The small size of cohorts allows for more targeted quarantining and tracing in the event of positive COVID-19 cases.
Look for “rigor and flexibility” in school reopening plans
Ultimately, parents can determine the best option for their families. Schools should accommodate families that prefer not to send their kids to school in person. “There’s no right answer,” says Dr. Klompas. “The best decision for your child depends on your family’s situation.”
To help make this decision, Dr. Klompas advises parents to study their school district’s guidelines. Have administrators considered how to implement safety measures in a realistic and effective way? “Make sure that your school conveys seriousness through their words and actions,” he advises. “Schools should demonstrate they have thought deeply about the requirements and how best to apply them to their setting.”
Dr. Klompas recommends parents look for signs of rigor in safety guidelines and flexibility as situations change. He uses the example of masks to demonstrate the questions parents should ask before they send their kids back to school:
- What kind of face mask does the school require?
- Has the school specified how masks should be worn?
- How will the school enforce proper mask wearing? Has the school created an action plan for what to do if a student refuses to comply?
Preparing for an uncertain future
Many unknowns exist for the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and parents alike should remain flexible and prepare for many possible outcomes.
If a student tests positive, schools should have a safety plan in place. What will the school do to keep other students safe? When should a school close? According to the CDC, a single case may not warrant the closing of a school. But it should merit contact tracing and self-isolation of those who had close contact with an infected person. If the spread of the virus is greater than that of the community, the school should consider closing for some time. Parents should also have a plan for childcare or working from home in this event.
“What’s okay today might not be okay tomorrow,” admits Dr. Klompas. “School administrators and parents should be ready to shift course as things change.”