Should I Send My Child Back to School?

Here is how to make a “comfortable decision.”

Posted Aug 03, 2020

Zurijeta/Shutterstock
Source: Zurijeta/Shutterstock

By Leslie Schweitzer Miller, M.D.

The start of the school year is on the horizon and with COVID-19 cases surging in many parts of the country, many parents (and children) are feeling anxious. Making matters worse is that the issue has become embroiled in partisan politics and clouded with confusing data. 

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics initially advocated for schools to reopen, but now recommends, “… leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

Overlapping risks and benefits

This has many parents unsure how to think about whether to send their kids back to school. As one patient said to me recently, “It’s hard when you have to choose between multiple bad options.” As with many choices in life, there are risks and benefits, and sometimes those overlap, making decisions that much more stressful.

Making a “comfortable decision”

I won’t add to the assortment of “right” answers, any more than I would consider telling my patients what to do. After all, what’s best for one family isn’t necessarily best for another.

But, as a psychoanalyst, I can offer an approach for making a comfortable decision, meaning one that might reduce possible regret in the future if things don’t go as planned.

As a parent, your goal is to make an informed decision about what action to take between two opposite choices. When psychoanalysts think about making decisions like this, we often find it useful to try to understand the underlying conflicts that lead to taking the action.

Conflicts

Sometimes, making a decision pivots on resolving a conflict. From a psychological perspective, conflicts can be external, between you and someone else, or internal, within two competing parts of yourself.

External conflict: If your spouse is comfortable taking risks, and the thought of a risk makes you anxious, trying to make this school decision can cause a conflict between the two of you, and that conflict can turn into a power struggle.

Coming to a resolution will require honest dialogue about the emotional impact on both of you. Remember that as parents, your shared goal is doing what’s best for your child, although you may not agree on what that is. Gather all the available information and discuss it. In this case, one partner will have to acquiesce to the other, as this is pretty much a yes-or-no decision and you can’t send half a child.

Internal conflicts: In addition, parents may each have their own internal conflicts. Parent #1, home alone all day with the kids, may have lost patience for them and their demands. The thought of homeschooling is torture. Being aware of this can cause Parent #1 to feel guilty, inadequate, or like a bad parent. People like this, with harsh, punitive consciences, sometimes try to make themselves feel better by doing the opposite of what they’d like to do.

In this case, Parent #1 might feel compelled to keep the children home, regardless of low viral risk levels in the area. Parent #2 and/or #3 may be working from home, find the kids disruptive to have around, and choose to send the kids to school. And, this may be a guilt-free and comfortable decision, particularly if the kids are anxious to get back.

List the pros and cons

In making this stressful decision, it’s helpful to develop a list of pros and cons relevant to your specific situation. Include any information available about the safeguards your school is putting into place to keep your child safe, the number of children in each class, and what they plan to do if someone in the school becomes sick.

Will they be doing testing and contact tracing? Will zoom instruction be available? Are teachers and students required to wear masks and keep six feet apart? If the children are bused, what safety measures are being put in place? What is school policy if a parent is sick?

List your children’s conflicts as well as your own, being as honest as possible. Consider your feelings, fears, anxieties, happiness, and stresses. Think about a strategy to help your child if he or she is frightened of bugs in the air, the food, or anywhere. Also assess practical issues, such as protection of at-risk members of your family, and the school’s ability to address special needs your child may have.

Take your concerns seriously

Consider your own mental health. If you feel you can’t cope with your children around all day, it does not make you a failure as a parent, just a realistic one with self-knowledge. If this describes you, the benefit to everyone may outweigh the risk. Or, if you’re more frightened of the risk than of losing your patience, look for some better coping strategies. There is help available.

Try to be kind and patient with yourself. You are not alone. Understanding your own conflicts about whether to send your child to school or not can help you find peace with whatever decision you ultimately make.

About the author: Leslie Schweitzer Miller, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City since 1985. She is a graduate of The Mount Sinai School of Medicine where is completed a residency in Pediatrics. In addition, she completed a residency in psychiatry at Beth Israel Hospital in New York.