Expert Q&A: COVID-19 and Schools Reopening

Learn how to weigh the risks of sending your child back to school with these tips from a pediatric infectious disease expert. 

Question: Our school district plans to reopen in the fall. How do I know it’s safe enough to send my child back to school?

Answer:

It’s unrealistic to think any protocol or procedure is going to make returning to school completely safe. The pandemic is far from over and sending your child back to school will involve some level of risk. However, a significant part of cutting down that risk is physical distancing. That may not always be easy to do in a school setting, but there are ways to reduce the risk of transmission, namely, cutting down class sizes and limiting large groups. Smaller class sizes or dividing kids into “pods” also makes contact tracing and singling out the cause of infection easier when it occurs.

Another good strategy to cut down the risk of transmission is rotating schedules. That is, smaller groups of children alternate which days they attend school versus when they participate in virtual learning. But this strategy will only work if children are given adequate time between switching – ideally 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. This allows enough time for some of those who are infected to develop symptoms, so parents can alert school administrators that their child is sick.

Masks are another important factor when weighing the risks. Ideally, anyone who can wear a mask, including teachers and students, should. This still applies in small group settings and especially when desks are spaced less than six feet apart. That said, growing data suggests that even when people are practicing social distancing, the risk of environmental contamination, especially indoors, is greater without a mask. So, ideally children should wear masks at all times, even when classrooms are set up to allow ample social distance.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, find out if your school has a long-term plan for when infections occur. Your school district should be working with public health officials to set up procedures for contact tracing so that when, not if, risk exposures happen, they will be ready to handle them.  If they don’t, this would make me think twice before for sending my child back to school.

Many essential workers don’t have choice to stay home in a virtual environment, but for others, making the decision to send their child back to school comes down to their family’s level of risk acceptance. To help you decide what that is, this checklist of school safety protocols can help.

I’ll add that one of key arguments for sending kids back to school, like social development, while no question important, will be difficult to do with proper physical distancing protocols in place anyway.  

In the meantime as you weigh your options, keep up with measures that are essential to keeping yourself and family protected. Wear a mask when leaving your house, keep at least six feet of distance (if not more) from others and wash hands frequently. 

David Cennimo, MD

Assistant Professor of Medicine-Pediatrics Infectious Disease

Associate Program Director, Internal Medicine and Pediatrics Residency Program

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

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