One of the most challenging and divisive decisions of the coronavirus pandemic is whether and how to reopen schools this fall.

As a veteran educator and author of two books on parenting (Jessica) and an infectious-disease physician (Tim), we are still deciding what is best for our own children.

We heard the same thing from a dozen nationally prominent psychologists, parenting experts and authors with whom we met by Zoom recently. One after another admitted that they, too, were unsure what they will do for their own children.

“We want our children to return to school for a variety of reasons, but safety is our top priority right now,” says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist. “We do have one asthmatic child, and that plays a role in our decision-making, particularly in light of the increasing numbers in Los Angeles. In the end, we have to do what’s right for our family to keep everyone healthy.”

Debbie Reber, founder of TiLT Parenting and author of “Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope,” is especially concerned about neurologically atypical students and children who may need extra services and support to succeed at school. She believes many kids have actually thrived in remote learning because some school-related triggers for anxiety and depression have disappeared. “At the same time, these are the kids who may pay a steeper price for missing out on the social and emotional learning that happens in person,” she said.

Once we’d all vented our frustrations and expressed our concerns for the children we parent, treat and teach, the call went quiet. We stared at one another, each from our own little boxes on our screens.

“I don’t know about all of you,” author Julie Lythcott-Haims said as she fought back tears, “but this all makes me so very, very sad.”

Why children need school

Keeping kids out of school is a high-stakes academic decision.

U.S. public school students will go into this new school year having learned less than half of the math and just under 70 percent of the language arts skills they would have acquired had schools remained open last spring, according to Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Even greater losses are predicted for very young children and for students in certain key school years such as seventh grade. Children from lower-
income or single-income households, children of essential workers and children for whom English is a second language stand to lose even more ground than their peers.

School is also a refuge for many children, especially for those suffering from abuse, neglect or food insecurity at home. Reports of child abuse and neglect are down, not because they’re happening less, but because of schools being closed by the coronavirus. Under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), school employees are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, and report nearly 20 percent of the child maltreatment cases in this country. That means if schools do not reopen to some in-person education, an estimated 807,700 cases of child abuse and neglect could go unreported this academic year alone.

Because schools are vital to learning and to the overall well-being of our children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in late June strongly encouraged schools to prepare for students to return to school in person this fall.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress in June, “I feel very strongly we need to do whatever we can to get the children back to school.”

President Trump tweeted in favor of opening schools for in-
person learning and threatened to sever funding for districts that do otherwise.

But as the virus continued to kill and sicken thousands of Americans with no signs of abating, the AAP in July clarified that “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate.”

Given the competing messages of politicians vs. public-health experts, it’s no wonder that administrators such as PJ Caposey, a schools superintendent in Illinois, lament on Twitter that the “mental gymnastics” around school-reopening decisions are “the absolute worst.”

Can we keep kids

safe at school?

So far, the best evidence suggests that, for many children, returning to school this fall could be safe, if adequate precautions are put in place and enforced.

This “if” has life-or-death importance and is a massive caveat given the ways elected leaders have undermined science-based messaging on wearing masks, physical distancing and other measures to contain the pandemic.

Already, there are signs of trouble, including a sleep-away camp in Georgia with social distancing precautions where scores of campers and staff members became infected and a school in Indiana that had to order a quarantine just after reopening because of a student testing positive for the virus.

What we do know is that children are less likely than adults to become infected with the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, and despite reports of an uncommon multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with covid-19 in kids, life-threatening disease is rare in children.

So far, although school-based outbreaks do occur, and kids clearly get infected, the best data available shows that schools have not consistently been epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, nor have young children been major drivers of viral transmission in most places. European schools, for instance, have reopened while keeping infection rates extremely low.

Kristina Bryant, an expert on pediatric infectious diseases, agrees with the AAP’s recommendation that schools should try to reopen this fall — both because it is safe for most children to return and because the coronavirus is expected to remain in the United States for a long time, too long to simply shut the schoolhouse door for all kids.

“It’s just not practical or beneficial to keep schools closed for years,” she said. “We need to figure out how to reopen safely.”

Bryant pointed to the tremendous creativity health-care leaders have shown to deliver clinical care safely in the age of the coronavirus. She said she is confident schools can rise to the occasion in the same way. “I’d like to think we could prioritize children with parents and teachers and school administrators and pediatricians working together to figure out how it can happen,” she said.

While administrators and teachers formulate processes to keep kids healthy at school, their efforts are a small part of a much larger epidemiological picture. The best, most meticulously planned and executed strategies are worthless if communities fail to follow evidence-based safety guidelines outside of school.

Teacher and staff safety

Reopening the nation’s schools affects more than the health and welfare of the children. There are 3.7 million teachers working in U.S. schools, and many feel their safety is being overlooked in the debate over a return to in-person learning.

“We love our students. We want to be in our classrooms, face to face with students, as soon as possible,” Sarah Mulhern Gross, an English teacher at High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J., wrote in a piece on Medium recently. “But we don’t want to risk our lives to do so.”

Concerns for teacher and staff safety are valid. A teacher in Arizona recently died after she and two others who shared a summer classroom contracted the virus, and Israel had to reclose some schools when hundreds of cases were found among staff members and students.

Fortunately, the best data from France and elsewhere suggests that reopening schools is safer than many think as long as schools implement strict safety measures and families diligently follow those measures.

In states where coronavirus cases are surging, schools and parents face difficult decisions. Even if schools open to in-person education, it is quite likely that some regions may have to close again to contain the virus’s spread.

Even where schools are reopened, it will be critical to deploy a full spectrum of safety measures.

Informed, empowered families

Every family has its own level of vulnerability to the coronavirus and its own ability to support learning in the home. Each child within that family has their own social and academic needs.

As a result, parents will need to make back-to-school decisions that are right for their own children. To inform and empower families to make the right back-to-school decisions for their children, we created a checklist of relevant factors for parents to consider.

Some factors in the checklist are more important than others. For instance, medical conditions that render a child particularly vulnerable to severe covid-19 should affect parental back-to-school choices more strongly than school climate.

Because the right decision will vary from family to family, and even child to child, community members should be respectful of others’ decisions so we make it through the pandemic not only safely but also with our communities intact.

Family decisions about returning to school can have important health benefits for the whole community, according to Bryant. If kids who need it most come to school full time whereas others take advantage of online or hybrid learning, the number of people crowded into schools will be lower, as will the likelihood of viral transmission. That said, Bryant does not want wealthier families to keep their kids home by default because “that could set up a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots.”

Individualizing back-to-school decisions may also help protect the nation’s most marginalized students. “Here is the dilemma for those of us who care about equity, social justice, and science,” Shayla Griffin, an educator, author and social worker, wrote in a piece on Medium that has since gone viral. “There are (at least) two competing justice issues on the table — the risk of not having school for the students most marginalized, and the risk of schools spreading a deadly disease to the students and families who are most marginalized. Choosing to address one inherently worsens the other.”

Making school as safe

as it can be

Beyond family back-to-school decisions, here are ways parents can shape how schools reopen — whenever that may be — to maximize safety.

Hold legislators accountable to good science. Parents who speak clearly, passionately and in unison can influence how elected officials respond to the epidemic. Parents should ensure school and political leaders know that they care deeply about effective prevention of community-wide transmission because it makes in-person school possible. Governors who make wearing masks a political football should hear from hundreds of frustrated parents who insist that the safety of their children and their teachers is protected by the best science available.

Hold legislators accountable for appropriate funding for schools. Quality online education requires more than shifting in-person lessons to a digital format. As Caralee Adams of the Hechinger Report wrote, “Experts in the area [of online education] say planning, designing, and implementing a high-quality online course can take more than a year.” Educators deserve more than a little parental slack as they engage in what one educator in Maine called “the biggest group project you’ve ever been a part of” to cobble together online or hybrid learning opportunities out of necessity amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

Help schools to hire school nurses. School nurses don’t just take temperatures and call home; they are licensed professionals who can educate students on proper transmission prevention and coordinate with public-health officials on case identification and contact tracing. Yet just 39 percent of schools employ a full-time nurse, a number that will have to increase for schools to handle the increased work of preventing outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Be honest and transparent. For schools to reopen safely, parents will need to report symptoms of or exposure to the virus and engage enthusiastically with contact tracing. Right now it’s potentially deadly to cover up a case of the sniffles.

Avoid blame and shame. We can’t afford to stigmatize people who get sick or decide not to wear a mask for (rare) medical reasons. Epidemic containment works much better if we are all in this together.

Push school administrators to follow the science. School leaders should be transparent about the ways they are following ­science-based guidance from experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Key measures parents should ensure are in place include:

●A plan to reclose schools if community infection rates rise above an unacceptable threshold.

●Implementation of age-appropriate and mask guidelines to accommodate young children and others who are willing but unable to adhere.

●Clear limits on crowding, especially indoors, through staggered schedules, cohorting students and teachers, and posting signage about physical distancing.

●Prioritization of in-person learning for kids who need it the most. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, for example, called for schools to reopen kindergarten through fifth grade in person as well as for students who require additional support.

●Use of online and hybrid education for other kids. Online learning might not be perfect, but it is a great way to reduce school crowding and keep communities safer during a pandemic.

●Close attention to adequate ventilation by leaving windows open when the weather permits and ensuring ventilation systems work.

●Provision of hand sanitizer and materials for surface cleaning in high-traffic areas.

●Collaboration with public-health departments in case identification and contact tracing.

Under normal circumstances, parents can trust schools to keep their children safe and ensure they receive a quality education. These are not normal circumstances, however. Fortunately, good science can help us figure out what to do, together.

Jessica Lahey is a former teacher and author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and the forthcoming “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” Tim Lahey is an infectious diseases physician and director of ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center.