“Are you sending your kids back to school in the fall?”
That’s literally how I’ve started every one of my conversations with a parent in the past few weeks. I’m obsessed with the answers they give, and their reasons for sending (or not sending) their kids back. I keep looking for insights that might help to validate my own decision, even if it's just to myself. My husband is an infectious disease expert, and we're not sending our kids back to school this fall — but it's a choice I wish we didn't have to make.
My husband works in infection control for a hospital in New York City. He’s worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during past outbreaks and is currently in contact with the New York State Department of Health on a daily basis regarding COVID-19 case counts. On his off hours, he spends time educating hospital workers and teachers on how to stay safe during the pandemic. He has seen people come into his hospital with a cough — and die a few days later. So for him, the decision to not send the kids to school was a no-brainer. “We are still learning about this virus, so we can’t be cavalier,” he told me when I let him know I was writing this story. “We have to be cautious, especially since there is no real plan to bring the kids back to school safely, and school is set to start in a few weeks.”
His decision is based on science and facts, as it should be. The question of how the novel coronavirus affects kids is a troubling one. On the one hand, experts have said kids seem less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults and the elderly, as NPR reported. In April of this year, the CDC found that about 1.7% of children 18 and younger had contracted COVID-19. As of this writing, however, more than 30% of children tested in Florida were positive (that's more than 17,000 kids); according to Bloomberg, kids younger than 18 currently account for nearly 10% of all cases in California and Mississippi. We're also learning more about the potentially devastating effects of the virus on children. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that of 27 patients at a London hospital, four children suffered neurological complications caused by the virus; as of July 15, the CDC counted 342 child inflammatory syndrome cases linked to COVID-19, reported WPIX.
All of these facts are not lost on me. But even if I’m #TeamFauci all the way, my choice to keep my kids home is based on much more personal factors. I know kids need to be in school, but every kid is different... and I have to wonder if this year's classroom experience will do my children more harm than good.
Having been a room mom for my daughter Claire’s kindergarten class this year, I saw firsthand how affectionate and loving little kids are in school. They hugged each other. They hugged the teacher. They hugged me. It’s a total lovefest. I just can’t imagine telling kids, especially young ones, to stay in their respective spaces and not to high-five their teacher or even hold their BFF’s hand.
And for the life of me, I can’t fathom how teachers are going to be able to maintain order in the classroom. How will little learners stay focused with a face mask on for hours on end? (Because you know they’ll be sneezing into them, taking them off, playing with them, and flinging them across the room, which means stressed-out instructors will spend half the day reminding students to mask up.) Although I am 100% in support of masks and their efficacy in stopping the spread of COVID-19, the thought of Claire and her 3-year-old brother, Andrew, (and all kids, really) having to wear one all day long — and only take it off to eat— just breaks my heart.
Thankfully, my husband and I are on the same page when it comes to our back-to-school plans. But still, there are those moments when the worry creeps in. It usually happens at night (after an exceptionally long day with all of the kids at home), when I see online that a parent has confidently announced their children's planned return to school in the fall. Or I read yet another story about how damaging it can be physically and emotionally to keep kids home. And while I think, in my braver moments, that I’ll be able to handle the curriculum for first grade and preschool, I remember my own shoddy home-schooling skills from the past few months and wonder how I’ll be able to balance working from home and educating my kid, all at the same time. Something’s going to give, and I'm betting my sanity will be the first to go.
There’s so much the kids will miss out on by not being in school. They won’t get to be around friends — and make new ones. They might not get the socialization they need, which is so, so important in the early years of elementary education. They also won't have a “real” teacher, as opposed to the subpar substitute they’ll have in me. Sure, in-person school this year might not be exactly the same as what kids are used to, but it’s still the brick-and-mortar experience of school, and it’s critically important. In short, at school, they’ll get everything that I can’t give them at home. Therein lies the rub — and it's what keeps me up at night. And I'm not the only one: A staggering 71% of parents stated that sending their child back to school in the fall is a large or moderate risk; another poll by USA Today/Ipsos found that six in 10 parents are planning to home-school this fall.
At home, though, they’ll be safer. They won’t have to wear a mask. They can ride their bikes for gym class or jump on the trampoline. They might not have the best teacher on the planet, but they’ll have one who absolutely adores them, and will try her damnedest to teach them. And maybe, what they’ll ultimately learn is that life is a balancing act, and sometimes, you have to do what’s best for you and your family, even if it looks different from what others are doing. That might mean sending your child to school, or it might be giving distance learning another shot, but whatever you choose is the right choice for your family. And for that, truly, every parent deserves a gold star.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.
Yael Hacohen, M.D., Ph.D., Queen Square Multiple Sclerosis Centre, UCL Institute of Neurology, Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College "Neurologic and Radiographic Findings Associated With COVID-19 Infection in Children" July 1, 2020