While COVID-19 continues to spread, parents across the country face an incredibly hard decision: Should children go back to school online? Or in-person?
Both decisions have their risks. Both decisions have their benefits.
Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and a professor at UT Southwestern, offers his expert advice to parents making this difficult choice.
1. Consider your child and your family's health
First, you should consider if your child or anyone else in your household is at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19. This may include adults or children who have:
- Immunodeficiencies due to a medical condition, smoking, organ transplant, cancer therapy or HIV/AIDS
- Asthma or chronic lung disease
- Sickle cell disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Heart conditions
- Liver disease
- Severe obesity (body mass index over 30)
"If your child has any underlying medical conditions, you should speak to their pediatrician for advice on returning to school," says Dr. Kahn.
Though most children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults, children with underlying medical conditions are at risk. Additionally, children can spread the virus to others.
"We know children may acquire the virus and may spread the virus, even if they show few symptoms," says Dr. Kahn. "You are more likely to get the virus if someone in your household has the virus."
If anyone in your household is over age 65 or has underlying medical conditions, it may be safer for the whole family for your child to stay at home, if possible.
2. Think about your child's abilities
Children of the same age can have different maturity levels. Your child should be of the right age and maturity level to follow school safety policies.
"When at school, children are going to have to wear masks and practice social distancing," says Dr. Kahn. "Older children and more mature children will be able to do that without any problems. For younger children, that may be more challenging."
If you don't believe your child will be able to follow safety instructions, you might consider keeping them at home to keep your family safe if your situation allows for this option.
3. Know your school's plan and safety measures
Dr. Kahn recommends paying attention to policies regarding times when kids may congregate, such as lunchtime, on the bus, school pick-up and school drop-off.
Make sure you and your child are prepared to follow any rules for these times every day. If you have any concerns about policies, turn to your school for answers.
4. Know your backup plan
If you do send your child to school, you should have an alternative plan in case the school closes due to an outbreak. Will someone be able to watch the child at home as they do virtual learning? Is there a daycare or other care center that can care for them during the day?
The status of the COVID-19 pandemic is always changing, and coronavirus is spreading differently throughout the country. Remember that this pandemic is an unusual and stressful time for many, especially for families. You are doing a great job making the decisions that are best for your family.
5. Weigh the pros and cons
The pros and cons of in-person instruction versus virtual instruction are going to be different for every family. Do your best to weigh them against each other.
"Having children attend school provides them not only education but also interaction with other children and socialization with peers," says Dr. Kahn. "These are all important things for children as far as development is concerned."
Socialization can be hard to emulate virtually, especially for tasks like working in small groups.
Virtual learning may also lead to less physical activity as children are looking at screens instead of moving during the day. But it is the safest choice as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends social distancing to prevent infection.
"We want to keep our children and our families as safe as possible," says Dr. Kahn. "Though virtual learning may not be the ideal platform, it may be necessary to confront a public health situation depending on the level of circulation of the virus in the community."
6. Emphasize safety for kids returning to school
If you choose to send your child back to school, you should talk to them about the school's changes and what rules and precautions they will need to follow. Let them know that they need to:
- Wear a mask except when they are eating
- Maintain social distance from classmates and teachers, when possible
- Wash their hands frequently, including after eating
- Follow any other rules or policies your school outlines
"You can empower your children by telling them they are playing their role in stopping the pandemic," says Dr. Kahn. "That can help them feel better about wearing a mask and social distancing."
For more information to help your family navigate returning to school during the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 back-to-school guidance page.
Learn more about COVID-19
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
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