Is It Safe to Send My Kid Back to School?

In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in a pandemic, economic depression, and civic unrest and your most basic choices become stress-inducing nightmares. There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are ways to assess and respond to risk.

Two years ago, most families wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling their kids out of school. But nearly 38 million COVID cases later, the safety of schools in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee. Data from last school year suggests that schools are not a major site of transmission, particularly when precautions are in place. But with precautions like masks waning and the Delta variant on the loose, it only makes sense to be worried for kids who aren’t yet eligible to get the COVID vaccine. That being said, in-person school is incredibly important for kids and is a priority despite the pandemic. “Group learning and participatory activity is a huge part of appropriate developmental learning,” says Susan Coffin, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

There are real health risks associated with sending the kids back to school — risks that extend beyond children who are immunocompromised and otherwise at high risk for COVID complications. Asymptomatic kids can still develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and they can spread the virus, particularly to members of their household.

Health and developmental concerns are real, but so are economic concerns and worries about the mental wellbeing of parents. Holding down a job while directing at-home learning is impossible for many parents and difficult to the point of maddening for many others.

Not all parents get to choose how their kid attends school this fall as some schools are only offering classes in person. But if you have a choice, it can be a massive headache. That’s a lot of risks to consider. Let’s map them out.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the School Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the actions you’re assessing — in this case, homeschooling, in-person learning, and sending your kid to school and afterschool care. Then, identify the potential consequences of those actions. The consequences we will consider are to public health, child development, child psychology, and family economics.

The matrices compare the severity of a consequence (from insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of an action. Of course, these risk matrices require a bit of guesswork. COVID-19 risk varies from community to community.

The consequences in the matrix fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can take the action without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a consequence falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different actions will have different mixes of red, yellow, and green consequences. And each action’s consequence, should it happen, will have a different severity rating from 0 (insignificant) to 5 (catastrophic). No choice is perfect. The total score listed below the matrix is a number to help you get a sense of the total risk associated with the choice.

Different families will have different risk tolerances. Wealthy families can take on economic risk. Healthy families can take on some risk of exposure. These matrices should be read in light of personal considerations, not as generalized risk maps.

  • Public health: The risk that the action has on public health.
    • For example, afterschool programs increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 because they are often crowded and may include close-contact sports.
  • Development: The risk the action has on delaying your child’s education and social/mental development.
    • For example, school and afterschool programs are going to be best not only for teaching your kid but also for socialization.
  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s mental health.
    • For example, a parent’s stress  often impacts their child. If you’re worried about your kid’s health going back to school, they’re probably going to worry too.
  • Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.
    • For example, homeschooling means that one parent won’t be able to work full-time, dropping your family income.

Mapping the Risk:

Total Score = 26

  • If your child is unvaccinated and is at high risk for severe COVID, remote learning is the best option for personal and public health.
  • Remote learning means parents seldom get alone time away from their kids and kids rarely interact with others their age. This can take a toll on the whole family’s mental health.
  • It’s nearly impossible to get a full work day in while homeschooling, which can mean less income and more financial stress.
  • Without peers to interact with in person, children miss out on social play crucial to their development.

Total Score = 12

  • In-person school is best in highly vaccinated areas with low community transmission of the coronavirus and for households that don’t include anyone who is unvaccinated and at high risk for severe COVID-19.
  • School is safer when masks are required and vaccines are mandated for staff and eligible students.
  • A full school day gives parents more time to get their work done. It gives children more social play and a more conducive learning environment.
  • Although parents may stress over their children’s health, they will be relieved to have a break from 24/7 parenting.

Total Score = 9

  • This option includes many of the same risks and benefits of attending in-person school.
  • However, it increases health risks when kids from different classes mix after school.
  • Parents can get a full work day in when kids are in afterschool care programs.
  • Kid get time to engage in play, which is crucial for healthy development but they may not get to do often during the school day.

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should send the kids back to school. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.

Ready to go back to school?

Ask some questions of the leaders in your school and advocate for the safest environment.

Questions to Ask Your School:

  • Are all staff and eligible students mandated to get the vaccine? If not, what percent are vaccinated?
  • Are masks required for everyone?
  • What is the plan for lunchtime, when masks can’t be worn?
  • How will you get students to social distance?
  • Will class sizes be limited?
  • Will my student interact with multiple adults or just one teacher?
  • Will there be an increase in outdoor classes?
  • Are you staggering school start and end times and lunchtimes?
  • How will classrooms be cleaned?
  • Will you screen students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure every day?

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