A physician-parent’s thoughts on reopening schools

Spoiler alert: If you are looking for the “right” answer as to whether or not your school should reopen for in-person teaching or if you should send your kid to school (versus virtual learning), you will not find that answer below.  But you will find some factors to consider in making a decision for your family.

Given that I am in multiple Facebook physician groups and parenting/community groups, my Facebook feed has recently become populated with posts such as  “Trying to figure out what to do for the fall. Are you sending your kids to school?” “Anybody have tips on homeschooling kids?” “Do you think it’s safe for schools to reopen in the fall?”  These are, in fact, questions I have been pondering since schools where I live shut down mid-March, trying to reconcile my medical training with the logistics of being a mom to two elementary-school-aged children. What I find dangerous about these posts, though, is that they neglect to take into account that what may be right for one family or child may not be right for another. To really answer this question, a few things need to be taken into account:

1. Infection rates in your area. Just like the family next door makes different choices than yours, what may be appropriate from a public health standpoint for one state or county may be a public health disaster for its neighboring state or county based on rates of infection and hospitalization numbers. Know whether the numbers in your area are rising, plateauing, or steadily declining. One could reasonably argue that if the numbers have not steadily declined in your area, teachers and students shouldn’t be back at in-person school.

2. Risk tolerance. Do you have one child and you and your significant other work from home? Your risk tolerance may be a bit higher than someone whose elderly parents live with them or where one or more people work in high-risk settings (such as healthcare).

3. Ability to distance. Was your child’s school physically overcrowded before the pandemic? Then it would probably be prudent to discuss what the school’s strategy is to allow for physical distancing. If this isn’t possible, that school likely shouldn’t reopen without an online option/staggered in-person schedule.

4. Age, temperament, and learning style of your child(ren). Do you have a high school student who learns well via technology and can successfully manage an online environment on her own? Or do you have an elementary-age kid who will need adult help to successfully participate in an online learning environment? Does your kid thrive on social interaction that has been lacking during this pandemic, or is he an introvert who is perfectly content being at home?

5. Ability to participate in an online learning environment. Let’s not forget that it is a privilege to even have the option of online schooling. I have several patients who are teachers in poverty-stricken towns whose students don’t have consistent access to computers and/or the internet. The pandemic has brought to light what most doctors already know—that social determinants of health greatly impact economic mobility as well. Early education plays a role in future income potential, and we may be setting up the next generation for a greater income divide than already exists.

Finally, let’s not forget that the whole world is experiencing an unprecedented pandemic, and there is still much we don’t know about this novel coronavirus. Please show grace to those who may choose a different route than you choose. We are all trying to make the “right” decisions for our families.

Joyce Varughese is a gynecology-oncology surgeon.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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