As a parent who also happens to be a hospital-based pediatrician, lots of people have asked me my opinion on back to school and/or daycare.
I am sharing my thoughts. I’m only one person. These are just my thoughts. Feel free to take what is helpful to you and trash the rest. It won’t hurt my feelings.
I think it’s important to frame this conversation by stating loudly and clearly that there is no perfect decision. Every decision we make every single day has risks and benefits. Every choice in parenting is a complex calculation of variables. What seems obvious to one person may not be so clear to another. I witness many different approaches to parenting through my work as a pediatrician. While I believe there are boundaries around what is acceptable parenting behavior, for the most part, most things people choose for their children fall within what I categorize as “probably fine.”
Because I know in my heart that most things are “probably fine,” as a parent, I try my best to really focus on what is best for my family and me and not compare or judge.
As a pediatrician, I will always share the evidence and “best practices,” but I understand that people have to make their own decisions with that information. Everyone is doing the best that they can with the information that they have.
And so I think it is important to add here that because we are all here in this circus trying our best, there is never any reason to feel guilty. Guilt is pretty much the most useless feeling that exists. Feeling guilty doesn’t make us better people, so I don’t waste my energy feeling it, I recommend no one waste their energy there. Literally, no one has time for that.
With that being said, how do we decide to send out kids back to school or daycare during a pandemic, while kids under 12 are still unable to get vaccinated, and our leaders are making all kinds of decisions that may or may not have kids’ health and safety as a priority.
As a pediatrician, I learned a long time ago to trust a parent’s instinct. I cannot count the number of times a parent has said to me, “I’m not sure; something just doesn’t feel right,” and that was the first clue leading to a diagnosis.
As a parent, I sometimes have to remind myself to trust myself. There is so much value in trusting ourselves. I’ve found instincts are a grounding place to start from.
For me, my instincts tell me that my kids benefit tremendously from being in school. I will not get into all of the reasons why, because frankly, they do not matter for any other family.
So once I have that established, there are pros and cons and evidence to weigh. And a solid reminder that there is no perfect decision. Here is my thought process.
Is there a risk of kids getting sick in school? Absolutely.
Daycare and school have always been full of germs. RSV, hand foot and mouth, gastroenteritis, rhinovirus, etc. have been around forever. These are illnesses that have circulated through our home many times in the last 3.5 years. And yes, we are seeing more of them this summer than we normally do.
Can kids get very sick with these illnesses? Yes.
Can kids have serious complications? Yes.
Can kids die? Yes.
I see bad things happen to kids every single day. I see the “worst-case scenario” over and over again. Over the years, I have seen complications with common illnesses that I didn’t even know were possible. I am constantly running worst-case scenarios in my head for my own kids.
But as a hospital-based pediatrician, I often remind myself that I do not see the vast majority of kids who get sick and recover at home just fine.
The risk of getting hospitalized from RSV (or other common viruses) has always been there. We see surges of these viruses all the time. Usually during the winter and some years worse than others, but this is something we have dealt with many many times before.
When it comes to these illnesses, the vast majority of the time, there is nothing parents could have done differently. I find myself telling parents all the time, “There is nothing you could have done differently to prevent this. There is nothing you did wrong. It’s mostly just bad luck.”
What about COVID?
I don’t have any easy answers for what it means to have COVID thrown in the mix. The delta variant does seem to be impacting kids at a higher rate than plain ol’ 2020-style COVID.
There are plenty of articles that talk about numbers and risks and hospital beds. This is not one of those articles.
Is there a chance kids will catch COVID at school?
But we also know a lot more now than we did 18 months ago. We have some tools on our side, and there are things we can control.
Here are some of those things:
Masks. There is evidence they work. No one loves wearing masks around, but kids and adults are fully capable of rising to the occasion. My very opinionated three-year-old wears one all day at school. I wore one while in labor and delivered a freaking baby.
Kids are so much more capable than adults give them credit for. I’ve been so impressed by their understanding of the importance of masks and their ability to wear them without complaint. I believe there is significant benefit and no risk to kids wearing masks in schools.
Vaccination. I got myself vaccinated the first day it was available to me. All of the adults in our immediate families got the vaccine as soon as they were able to. Because most kids seem not to get super sick, we have always been most worried about our kids catching COVID and spreading it to a high-risk loved one. Now that all of our high-risk loved ones are vaccinated, we feel a little less concerned about this. Vaccinated people can still catch COVID but are less likely to get super sick or to die.
I will be first in line with my kids the day they are eligible.
Everything I have read clearly indicates the vaccine is safe, and there is significant benefit not only to the individuals being vaccinated but our entire communities. For me, this is an easy decision, and I’m counting the days until the two youngest members of my house can be protected in this way.
Stay home when sick: Any cough/cold/congestion/fever/”allergy” can be COVID. Staying home and away from others and getting tested goes a long way to preventing the spread, even when it’s disappointing. Even when it’s inconvenient, I think it’s the right thing to do.
Ultimately, we have decided to send our kids to school/daycare for now. Could that change? Of course. In all parenting decisions, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. I know not everyone agrees with the decision, but right now, it is the right one for us.
The author is an anonymous physician.
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