This week, millions of students around the US are kicking off the new school year. But unlike previous years marked by first-day jitters and fresh notebooks, this back-to-school season comes with a whole host of other concerns thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
In lieu of national guidance, individual districts have had to make their own plans about how to reopen schools. Many of the nation’s biggest school districts, including those near Los Angeles and San Diego, are sticking with remote learning. Others, including New York City’s million-student system, are opting for a hybrid model of in-person and online learning after Sept. 21, much to teachers’ chagrin.
For parents, the lack of a national reopening plan has spelled chaos. As reopened businesses require some parents to return to work, they’re left to make decisions based on competing priorities and incomplete information. Many wonder: Am I OK with sending my kid back to school in person, or should I figure out some other plan to educate them? How can I do that while balancing my own work?
Checklists, like this one from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention, can help parents ask the right questions. But they don’t necessarily help them weigh the different factors that tailor decisions to each family’s, or even each child’s, unique needs. Let’s lay out the issues so families can make the decisions that are right for them.
A study in contradictions
Top of mind, of course, is students’ risk of Covid-19 infection. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics found that, though children don’t often get sick from Covid-19, they carry the coronavirus in higher concentrations than previously thought.
That means kids who pick the virus in class may spread it to others. Schools are implementing a variety of practices to reduce that risk and nip any outbreaks in the bud. But no protection is perfect—especially when it relies on young kids to wear masks appropriately, and on already-overburdened teachers to do even more policing. So parents in households that include immunocompromised or high-risk individuals especially might try to avoid in-person instruction for their children.
But parents are being forced to weigh the threat of Covid-19 against the risk to their child’s development. From a straightforward learning perspective, there’s some evidence that students who spend time away from the classroom are less likely to retain the information they’ve already learned. This could widen the achievement gap between wealthy kids who get enrichment outside of school, and lower-income kids who don’t, and who might have a harder time catching up.
“It’s a huge equity issue—you’re potentially setting up the most vulnerable kids for suffering the most,” says Heidi Schweingruber, director of the Board on Science Education at The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and one of the authors of an influential report on reopening schools published in July.
There’s a lot kids get out of school besides their classroom education, too, notes Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a developmental psychologist at the University of Delaware and the author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children. The structure provided by games, or even just the task of walking down the hall quietly, helps improve executive function, the ability to plan and shift flexibly between tasks. Playing with other kids aids in their social and emotional development, too, though Schweingruber points out this kind of develop doesn’t only happen at school.
“Kids need school. Bottom line,” Golinkoff says. And that need is increased for some students more than others: The NASEM report points out that young students and those with special needs require more support during remote learning because it’s harder for them to focus and get past frustration. “It’s pretty much universally accepted that virtual and remote learning aren’t going to be the same bang for the buck [as in-person learning]. It’s just not the same. Interpersonal [interaction] really does matter,” Schweingruber says.
Some kids do fine with remote learning, making their parents’ decision more straightforward. However, “the vast majority of people in America…want their children to go back to school,” Golinkoff says, ideally without taking ridiculous risks to do so. “It’s a really difficult decision.”
Then there are the decisions that get made for parents. Schools provide services beyond educational development: Millions of students rely on their schools to receive mental health treatment, or for meals including lunch. For some families, these services are necessities that leave them with no choice but to send their kids back to school in-person and accept the risk of infection.
The same goes for the many working parents whose jobs are outside the home, and who don’t have access to in-home childcare. Even if a parent works remotely, it may be impossible to juggle their own work with guiding remote learning, especially for younger kids. The decision is still hard, even if parents have fewer options.
Parents without those restrictions are getting creative. Applications for home schooling, required in some states, have exploded, according to the Associated Press. Families with means are hiring tutors at unprecedented rates or are grouping kids into learning pods in which a group of students move between families’ homes.
It seems likely, if not inevitable, that even schools with well-developed plans to reduce the spread of the virus may have to close again at least temporarily if infection rates tick up—making parents’ hard-won risk calculations moot.
That’s already happening in some universities, where students have returned to campus only to find that classes have again shifted online; it’s also happened in other countries, such as Germany and South Korea, where the virus is much more under control.
If (or when) that happens, US-based parents will have to re-evaluate how to educate their kids, and whether to send kids back again if schools do shut down. Parents should get as much information as possible from districts about the conditions—including number of infections and communication plans—that would prompt a shift to all-remote learning. “That kind of clarity about how [districts] are making and revisiting the decision, in this time when everything feels murky and ever-changing, could be helpful,” Schweingruber says.
There’s no one solution that’s right for everyone, but one constant remains: Most parents are probably looking forward to a day when a Covid-19 vaccine means children can return to school without the extra concern around infection.
“I’ve been amazed that the pandemic has shown what a linchpin for communities schools are,” Schweingruber says. “It’s good that’s been surfaced. But it also means to me that in the long term we need to think more about what we’re not doing for schools and education.”