Back-to-School in 2020: Making the Right Choice


In any other year, August is often a month of pool parties and back-to-school shopping. This August however, parents are instead grappling with whether or not there should be any back-to-school at all. With COVID-19 cases rising in some states, many school districts have elected to start the 2020 school year entirely online. Others are giving parents options to choose a hybrid model of some in-person and some online classes. How are families to decide what to do and what are the risks?

Brooke Hurley, aged 39,  laughed as she described her daughter’s preparations for school. “She told me the other day that when she gets to kindergarten it’s going to be like preschool. She’ll put her backpack in her cubby and hang her coat up and then they’ll have play time.” Her daughter turned five this summer and was excited to start kindergarten, or at least, what a five-year-old thinks kindergarten will be like.

Brooke and her husband Dave Hurley, aged 45, live in South Williamsport, Penn. They decided to keep their daughter home this year, delaying her entry to kindergarten until she’s six. “If she has a bad experience in kindergarten, I don’t want her to look at school like a prison,” Brooke said. This doesn’t mean no education at all though. “We do work with her every day. We try to read to her, we get her to try to read. She writes a little bit every day, does a little bit of math.” 

Although both work, the Hurleys say they’re lucky. “We have a pretty good support network around us with my parents and Brooke’s parents,” explained Dave. “Brooke’s mom was a teacher so we have people to help kind of guide her.” 

Is There a Right or Wrong?

But what is the right call? Should we all be staying home or is in-person school a good idea? Like most COVID-19 conundrums, there isn’t a clear yes or no answer. Susan Coffin, MD, a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), said she wants to see transmission going down and a low rate of virus before kids go back. Speaking in a webinar for the media, hosted by CHOP, Dr. Coffin said the idea of wanting low rates of transmission before schools start again is universal. “I really would want to know that the schools my children are going to go to are adequately resourced,” Dr. Coffin said, “Do they have a good and workable plan to keep children and staff safe while in school?” 

But going to school and staying safe won’t be easy. “Children are naturally social critters, I always think that they’re sometimes drawn to each other as if they’re magnets,” Dr. Coffin joked. But there are some workable solutions. She mentioned circles on the floor to encourage distancing, classes held outdoor or in a gym, or the popular hybrid model where some students stay home while others attend in person. 

But what happens if someone at school does get sick, despite the precautions? What then? Dr. Coffin said to expect your schools to be in close contact with public health officials. “We don’t want to break people’s privacy, so we will have to be respectful and not allow the rumor mill to get too far ahead of us,” Dr. Coffin said. 

Going to School

If you’ve made the decision to send your children to school, Dr. Coffin suggested sending them out the door with their own mask, a back-up mask, and some hand sanitizer. Jason Lewis, PhD, a psychologist at CHOP who also participated in the webinar, advised that parents talk to their children early and often about the need for wearing masks in order to prepare them. “Practice having them use [a mask] around the house in a familiar situation. Start off with little doses at a time.” 

“You can think about using positive reinforcement strategies, certainly lots of praise, labeled praise, lots positive attention,” Dr. Lewis suggested. Even a little bit of bribery might be okay. “If they wear the mask for a certain amount of time they can earn some type of reward, whether it be extra time on TV, they get to choose dessert, or special playtime with mom or dad,” he offered.

Children Are Smarter Than We Give Them Credit For

Kids do seem to grasp the situation. The Hurley’s daughter has taken some of the safety advice to heart. “If anybody tries to blow her a kiss she goes, “Do not blow me a kiss, you know that’s not good.”” Brooke said. Although the Hurleys seem confident in their decision to delay kindergarten a year, thinking about the social aspect is hard. “She has had very little social interaction with other little kids,” Dave said. About a month ago the family had a socially distanced playdate to catch fireflies, and it was their daughter who enforced good social distancing rules. “She’s like, “There’s bugs over there. You’re getting too close.”” Brooke said.

Although Brooke and Dave seem very much on the same page, it hasn’t been easy. The school’s plans have changed a lot. Dave likened it to being stuck in a boat in the middle of the river, “having all these people yelling things at you, “Do this, do this, do this. You don’t know who to listen to, is kind of how I feel with it. Where’s good information coming from? Where’s the bad information coming from? And then it comes down to, okay, well, the officials who are they listening to. Are they listening to the good information, the wrong information, and how can they tell the difference if I can’t?”

If you’re worried about making the school decision, Dr. Coffin suggested some specific questions you can ask your school administrators: “Can you tell me what my child’s classroom is going to look like…tell me what’s going to look different,” or “I’m struggling to get my daughter to wear her mask, tell me what you’re going to do if she’s not able to wear her mask consistently.” She said this will be a good way to see how well your school has planned for some common problems. 

As for what in-person school might look like, Dr. Coffin said to expect more of the same. “The principles that various institutions are using to keep kids safe when they come to school should look a lot like what you’re getting used to seeing in your community,” she explained. “They’re going to be based on the exact same principles, principles of distancing, wearing masks and removing yourself or your child from a group of people if they have any symptoms or have been exposed to coronavirus.” 

Uncertainty Is OK

Feeling confused or conflicted about what to do is perfectly reasonable. “One of the first things that I would say is [parents] have to do their research,” Misty Hook, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Allen, Texas, told Medical Daily. Dr. Hook also added that these need to be reliable facts, from a trustworthy source like the CDC. Once you have your facts, then you can talk about the situation. Dr. Coffin recommended looking at your county health department for infection rates. Other sources are your state’s health department or the Johns Hopkins tracker, which counts cases by county. 

When Parents Don’t Agree

If you’re in a situation where you and your partner (or ex-partner) don’t agree about sending your child back, Dr. Hook suggested sitting down, in person if possible, and discussing the situation. But if that doesn’t work, the next step is looking for compromises. If both parents worry about socialization, but one fears in-person school, then maybe socially distant playdates and at-home schooling can be a good compromise. If compromise isn’t an option, Dr. Hook suggested asking, “Who has the biggest stake?” Dr. Hook has asthma, for example, which could put her at higher risk of contracting the virus, but this is broadly applicable. “Other people have their grandparents living with them, or they are caretakers for their elderly parents or something like that. So who has the biggest stake?” She suggested that parents who don’t agree ask each other what happens if the other is right? Sort of, what’s the worst case scenario if my fears are true. 

Talking to Your Child

Once you come to a decision, telling your child should be done in person, with an explanation of why you made your decision. If your child doesn’t agree, Dr. Hook suggested trying to change the narrative, “Emphasize compassion for others, the need to sacrifice for the good of society…or they can say this is a way that we show others that we care for them. So reframe the decision in a way that they probably get on board and think more positively than negatively.” Both Dr. Lewis and Dr. Hook emphasized the importance of acknowledging and validating a child’s feelings.

They also agreed it’s important to validate your own feelings and make time for self-care. “Let’s face it, this is an anxiety provoking time for us as adults as well, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that affects us.” Dr. Lewis said. 

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