Back to School During a Pandemic

Back to School BELatina Latinx

While it seems like March lasted for approximately 3,421 days, all of the months since then have flown by relatively quickly, with the back-to-school season about to hit us all like a ton of bricks. 

After months of speculation and anticipation from parents, children, educators, school boards, and government officials, decision time is officially here for communities across the country. Unfortunately, although the coronavirus has been dangerously present across the U.S. for several months the first reported case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported back in January it seems that we, as a nation, are still left with more questions than answers. The harsh reality is that there is no clear-cut direction in terms of the safest course of action for returning students to school.

And for parents and families faced with the complicated and stressful decision of how to approach schooling in the face of a persistent and unforgiving pandemic, it’s sure to be a rude awakening after summer break. 

Back to school is supposed to be about buying school supplies and brushing up on your academic skills. It’s supposed to be full of mixed emotions about summer ending and reuniting with friends. In normal years the first days back to school are a chance for parents to get back to their regular routine and reliable work schedule while kids are intellectually engaged in a safe school environment. But it’s 2020, and nothing feels normal anymore. 

This year, going back to school will be about debating whether it is safer to return children to in-person learning environments or keep them home doing virtual learning. It’s going to be about managing your children’s academic schedule and workload while also trying to manage your own work-from-home routine or attempting to return to the office. It’s going to be about constant fear over your kids catching COVID-19 and your simultaneous fear that without physical learning and student interaction, they could fall behind and suffer in every sense of the word emotionally, academically, mentally, physically, socially… 

In 2020 back to school is going to be complicated to say the least. And while families, teachers, school administrators, and even politicians are trying desperately to figure out reopening plans that make sense from a safety and academic perspective, it feels like a bit of a crapshoot. Parents are trying to plan out every last detail of the school year to protect their kids. Still, with such an unpredictable virus that even experts are baffled by and trying to figure out how to control and cure, it’s nearly impossible to plan.

It’s like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded while someone else keeps moving the pieces around. At any moment the virus could change course, or a new risk could be discovered, and suddenly your brilliant plan has gone to sh*t. And the domino effect of that one new piece of information could cause a damaging ripple effect that unravels everything you thought you knew. 

So, what are parents to do? First of all, breathe. Next, do your research.

As with any major decision that will impact your family, especially your children, all parents should gather as much information as possible. Do the research. Read articles and medical journals and scientific studies. Listen to the experts. Keep up to date on recent test results and data trends. Ask trusted relatives and friends what they are thinking. Talk to your kids. Talk to your doctors. The most important thing you can do as a parent faced with an impossible decision and a terrifyingly uncertain reality is to arm yourself with as much information as possible. 

If you’re not sure where to begin or what questions to even ask, we’re breaking down some of the biggest conundrums and some of the most recent expert advice and scientific-backed insight with regards to COVID-19 and returning students back to school. Keep in mind that this issue is a moving target with new developments daily as more research is conducted and more schools across the nation start to craft their re-opening plans for the fall. You might not get all the answers you are looking for today, but at least you’ll know what to expect so you can make informed decisions.

How Can Schools Operate Safely, Keeping Distancing Guidelines in Mind?

As school districts decide whether or not to open after weighing the complex recommendations from experts and conflicting federal, state, and public health guidelines, one thing is for certain: schools will look very different if and when they do reopen. 

Places where students used to congregate will no long be gathering spots, buses will need to be more regulated and less crowded, cafeterias will not be able to serve as communal eating areas, and classrooms will be set up with desks distanced and collaborative work tables eliminated. 

And that’s just the beginning. 

It’s safe to say that school days as we know them will not exist in 2020, and the question for school administrators and families is whether or not schools can reopen safely for in-person learning while maintaining the distancing guidelines that public health experts agree are crucial.

Across the nation, school districts are starting to announce their plans for the Fall 2020 school year LA and San Diego schools (two cities hit hard by COVID in southern California) have announced they will NOT reopen in the fall, opting for an online-only learning model in the fall.

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced last week that schools would reopen on August 31st (a week late) and all instruction would be online until Miami-Dade County’s COVID positivity rate is decreased significantly – currently the rate is 17%, way above the goal of 5%. 

As of the publishing of this article, the New York City public school system only submitted an outline for proposed reopening, not a full plan for the school year. 

Those are just some of the largest school districts contemplating virtual or hybrid models until conditions are safer for students, teachers and families. But if your school is considering opening, and you’re curious what kinds of changes to expect and what sorts of new regulations to look for, here are some important elements to watch out for:

  • No visitors on school campus: schools will most likely be limiting the number of visitors inside the school and on campus to minimize the risk of infection and spread.
  • Bus routes and seating regulations will be changed: getting kids to and from school will be one of the greatest challenges for many school districts. Some school systems may request students to find alternate transportation to school. If buses do run, they may limit how many students can ride a vehicle at once, they may insist students sit in a zig-zag pattern, students will need to wear masks, or buses may run in continuous routes like city transit. 
  • Entering and exiting the school will be strictly regulated: students will have temperatures checked when they arrive at school and they will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms. There will most likely be different entry and exit points, with one-way hallways to minimize the crossover and physical, contact between students.
  • Class sizes will be reduced: it can be challenging to keep students apart, especially with younger kids, so some schools may implement smaller class pods of less than 12 students to try and reduce interactions and keep any potential positive cases contained to a single pod.
  • Schools will repurpose communal spaces: cafeterias will most likely not be used for lunch and instead will allow a larger space for socially distanced academic learning. 
  • Classrooms will maximize fresh air exposure: when possible, windows and doors will be kept open to reduce the risk of airborne transmission of the virus and promote healthier circulation of fresh air. 
  • For older students, desk dividers may be used: in classrooms where students and desks cannot be six feet apart, clear desk dividers may be used to minimize the spread of germs and keep students distanced safely.
  • Say goodbye to group projects: for now at least, group work would be done remotely or virtually and project-based work would be done from home rather than in communal classroom spaces.

The Health Risks to School-Aged Children are Still Largely Unknown

It’s clear that COVID-19 is extremely contagious and can spread quickly from person to person. And in a crowded school setting especially, there’s a huge risk that children, teachers and staffers could get sick and spread the disease at an alarming rate. But there’s still so much we don’t know about the specific risks to children, both in terms of how ill they can get if they contract the coronavirus, and how easily they could spread it to others. 

As parents, the fact that we’re being asked to make important choices for our children and our families without sufficient scientific information around our kids’health is maddening. It’s like we’re being asked to solve an equation without knowing all of the variables. As educators, the fact that teachers are being asked to return to schools and potentially put themselves and their families at intense risk without all of the answers they need is equally unfair. And while the various health organizations are trying to play catch up and gather as much data as possible in as short a time period as possible, decision-makers are trying to make smart choices with what little information we know now.

One such study was conducted back in June using epidemiological data from China and five other countries. The study found that people under the age of 20 are about half as likely to get infected as older people, and when you look at children and teens between 10-19 years old, only 21% of those people who become infected show symptoms. Meaning that it seems as if children are not only less likely to show symptoms, they are also less likely to pass on the virus to others. But again, the data is preliminary.

Another larger study out of South Korea conducted contract tracing for about 5,700 COVID-19 patients to investigate the impact on kids under the age of 10. The researchers found that “kids under the age of 10 spread the virus at about half the rate of adults, but kids between 10 and 19 spread it at a similar rate as adults (although the study included fewer people from that age group than adults).” 

According to Time, this study indicates that administrators and policymakers need to look at preschool and elementary-aged kids differently from middle and high schoolers. “My take home from that is that it’s an age continuum,” explains Dr. William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont. “The older you are, the more likely it is you’re going to have transmission similar to adults.” 

In the U.S., we don’t have very complete or reliable data because American schools closed early during the pandemic, so we don’t have much information about the way the virus spreads in U.S. classrooms. All we really have to go on at this point in time is data from other countries and advice from experts across the globe. In Florida alone, recent data shows the children are at risk of becoming dangerously ill from COVID-19, and positive tests, as well as hospitalizations, were both up in the past month.

According to CNN,as of July 16th Florida had a total of 23,170 COVID cases among children ages 17 and under, according to the Florida Department of Health. In just over one week that number increased by 34 percent to 31,150 on July 24. And even more concerning, more children in Florida are requiring hospitalization. As of July 24, 303 children had been hospitalized with coronavirus in the state. 

Managing Fear (of Kids and Adults) As Schools Reopen

Another element to consider is something parents know all too well: fear. We’re all terrified of everything that could go wrong. We’re scared that our children will get sick or could endanger other loved ones if they are exposed. We’re scared if they don’t go back to school they will fall behind or suffer lasting social-emotional setbacks due to lack of interaction and in-person learning. 

But one thing we may not realize is that in many cases our kids are scared too. They hear us when we stress about the global pandemic and they overhear the news or the adult discussions and ongoing debates. They know that COVID-19 is dangerous and people are dying. They know they do not want to get sick. As it turns out, pandemics are stressful for kids as well as parents.

“There’s no question that this has been an overall extremely stressful and in some ways a traumatizing experience for a lot of us,” explains Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, UT Health San Antonio. “I think lack of information, misinformation, the uncertainty of what things will look like in the next few months in the school year is extremely stressful and difficult for families to deal with,” she tells CNN

And for children who already suffer from anxiety or who struggle to adapt to new experiences and changes to their routines, going back to school will be particularly challenging from an emotional standpoint. 

That fear may be impacted by their personal experiences with COVID-19 or it may be a result of acute awareness of the health risks, but it will undoubtedly have an impact on how kids learn this fall. 

“When a child is anxious or fearful, the parts of their brains responsible for attention, thinking, and learning just aren’t able to function as well,” explains Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Stanford Brainstorm. 

How Do Families Make an Academic Plan That is Right for Them?

So, what is the solution here? What can parents do to ensure they make the right decision for their kids and they keep their families as safe as possible, while also protecting their overall wellbeing and academic health. The unfortunate answer: there is no answer. Or at least, there is no one-size-fits-all answer that applies to all families in all situations. 

Every family needs to do their research, take their time sifting through the often confusing (and often conflicting) information out there, and start to weigh out the risks and rewards as they apply to their unique family situation. Remember that what is right for you and your children may not be what is right for every family, and you need to go with your gut and do what feels right for you. Nothing is worth risking your health and the safety of your children. 

One day, hopefully not too long from now, life will feel more normal again, and children will be able to safely attend school without desk separators or masks or virtual projects and temperature checks. One day. That day may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but our country will get there. 

So be patient, be smart, be kind with yourself, be calm, and do your best to make choices that feel safe for your family. And for old time’s sake, buy some pencils, highlighters, and notebooks just in case.