The risks of three back-to-school plans, ranked

While some options eliminate COVID-19 concerns, they still may be worrisome for other reasons.

While some options eliminate COVID-19 concerns, they still may be worrisome for other reasons. (Julia M Cameron from Pexels/)

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School is back in session for many students across the country, which means tough decisions surrounding education are falling on the shoulders of teachers, school districts, and parent-guardians. With all of the unknowns of coronavirus still swirling in the air, it can be hard to judge whether ringing the morning bell and opening the classroom door is worth it.

There’s a long list of health precautions to consider before sending kids (or yourself) back to school, namely how high infection rates are in your community, how old the children are, and how well they might take to an alternative like online schooling. The solution won’t be the same for any two communities or students. After all, physically going to school has a lot of social and psychological benefits beyond learning—so for some, it might be worth the risk to go back.

Even if there’s no perfect answer, however, there’s one option that falls well below the rest, and that’s be going back to school acting like absolutely nothing has changed. Here are a few schooling options ranked by risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Riskiest: Back to school as usual

It goes without saying that returning to life before COVID-19 swept over the globe is a recipe for disaster. And for schools that require students to move through crowded hallways, ride a bus, be dropped off in one massive cloud at the start of the day, and sit in classes of up to 30 other kids, the opportunity for spread is seemingly boundless. A county in Georgia is already dealing with over a thousand new cases after opening up schools with lax restrictions.

While kids might not show as many acute cases of COVID-19, they can still transmit the virus and end up with life-threatening inflammatory illnesses, says Rainu Kaushal, the senior associate dean of clinical research at Cornell University’s medical school. Also remember, children aren’t the only people who are inside the classroom—teachers and other staff are also at risk. Some school employees may be older or have separate comorbidities; some might also commute long distances to get to work, which could lead to the disease spreading between different communities.

“The risk to them just increases with every risk factor,” Kaushal says.

If your school district seems to be hurrying along with a lenient game plan and you have the option to do at-home learning, first gauge how bad the rate of infection is in your community by paying attention to your local news and state health department website. In some places around the country and globe, the virus is more under control, and it might be more of a possibility to go back to school normally.

Schools don’t exist in a vacuum, says Aubree Gordan, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. What’s happens in the community affects what’s going on in the classroom, and vice versa. Even if only one kid gets sick, they’re putting staff members and students at risk, as well as their family members and anyone that each of those family members interacts with.

Risky: Back to school with modifications

Before we dive into how schools can take precautions to make the classroom a safe and healthy space, it’s important to remember why it’s so critical to get classes back up and running in the first place.

“School serves as a safety net for so many children,” Kaushal says, “in terms of food, in terms of safety from violence that might be happening in their home or neighborhood, and in terms of check-ins for emotional and physical well being.”

Walking into school opens up opportunities for children that can’t be replicated home. For young kids, especially, school teaches essential social skills like waiting, sharing, and interacting with peers. Not to mention, it’s hard enough for adults to focus on a virtual meeting for hours on end, so it can’t be any easier for seven-year-olds.

To provide that structure while keeping everyone healthy, schools can adapt in a handful of ways. Some safe options, Kaushal says, include organizing classrooms to allow six feet of spacing between desks, keeping windows open and auditing for ventilation, separating schedules between cohorts, rotating which kids come to school during certain days or times so classrooms and drop off spots aren’t full all at the same time, and swapping out recreational activities.

These suggestions may sound easy, but putting them to work can be harder than it seems. Providing separate crayons so that children don’t have to share might be straightforward enough, but getting every child in the district their own microscope is a different story, Kaushal adds. Traditional COVID-19 avoidance methods like wearing a mask can be pretty challenging for a group of kindergartners sitting in a room for eight hours straight.

Having diligent cleaning practices and offering a “mask-free zone” for students to take little breaks could help ease some difficulties, Kaushal says. As for lunch and recess, unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot that can be done to make these activities happen like they used to.

But even if a school is doing everything right, there’s still a chance that someone from the community with a case of COVID-19 might wander in and pass it off to someone else, Gordon says. The touched-on practices decrease the probability of a significant outbreak, but that chance can never truly be zero.

Not risky: School from home

For high-risk kids who can handle or enjoy working from home, doing school primarily online is the most secure option. After all, staying inside your home is pretty much the only fool-proof way from catching or spreading COVID-19. So, if you have a child with asthma or other health issues, or maybe even a family member that lives with you who is in the high-risk population, this is likely the way to go. Not to mention, if you live in a town or state where rates keep rising and policy action is limited, it’s safer to go this route than return to a business-as-usual school. Many districts have options for remote learning if you’re hesitant to let your kids go back to school, Gordon says.

Of course, learning from home is challenging for caretakers trying to juggle work and younger kids who can’t seem to focus. What’s more, not all students have access to laptops, software, and a stable internet connection. Just know that you don’t need to make one grand decision for all schools lumped together: If you have kids that range in age, there might be different solutions, Gordon says. For example, teens might be able to take classes just fine from home—and given that they’re at higher risk of coming down with serious symptoms, it might be okay to keep them there. Younger children need more supervision and structure at home.

If you decide to take the remote-learning route, it’s also important to remind your kids that this switch isn’t forever, Kaushal says. Online classes might be the way to go for the next handful of months, but the day will come where they can play with their friends and snack in the cafeteria again.

And if you decide to send your kids back to school physically, make sure to talk to them about how things may be changing, and of course, get them personal protective equipment that fits. Luckily, masks come sin all sorts of shapes, sizes, and patterns, so they make the perfect back-to-school accessory.