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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Making Wise Decisions as a Novel School Year Begins

Managing risk and emotional challenges in an unusual school year.

JoLynne Martinez/Flickr
Source: JoLynne Martinez/Flickr

COVID-19 is terrible for everyone, but there are risk factors to consider and attitudes toward it that can help you mitigate the collateral damage caused by the frustration, confusion, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, and disappointment we are all experiencing now.

The pandemic means a back-to-school experience unlike any we’ve ever known. Parents are stressing over sending their kids to “real” school, doing virtual learning, trying to do a hybrid version, setting up a learning pod, or homeschooling.

Most kids are desperate for the social environment and structure that school provides. Most teachers yearn to get back to the work they love and are good at. Most parents long for the good old days when they were free to do their work and know their kids were safe at school, having some fun and learning. But also, most kids, parents, and teachers know we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and no reasonable person wants to get sick or infect someone they love.

There is no easy way to keep everyone safe, at school, and happy. Your frustrations, confusion, and anxiety all make sense. There are ways to lower the risks, though, and to give kids and parents the school experience they’re hoping for, at least in those communities that can manage to keep their infection numbers low.

Here’s my synopsis of the risk reduction factors, based on listening to the international experts who have been analyzing the data on school safety and outbreaks as analyses emerge.

Risk Reduction Factors

  1. Community numbers. If new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in your community from COVID-19 are low and steady, school will be relatively safe. If the numbers start going up, be ready to pull back from school.
  2. Small classes, bubbled. There have been many analyses done on optimal class size. Overall, they conclude that smaller is better, up to a maximum of 15. The less contact the classroom group (including teacher) has with those in other bubbles, the better. This makes it difficult for high schools, where teachers typically teach one or two subjects. In some jurisdictions, high school students will be going to school part time and studying online part time, in order to take this into account.
  3. Fresh air. Outdoor classrooms are best, and appear to be relatively safe. Where that is not possible, the windows should be open. Where that is not possible, the ventilation system has to be clean and effective.
  4. Staggered schedules. The worst times for crowding—and therefore infection transmission—are school openings and closings, and other situations where everyone is moving at the same time.
  5. Masks. As more is learned, it has become clear that kids get it and spread it, and that masks make a big difference.
  6. Social distancing. This is less important outside, and may not be reasonable or psychologically healthy with young children, but the two metre/six feet distance helps mitigate infection.
  7. Hand hygiene. I’ve seen different systems for this, from everyone carrying a personal container of hand sanitizer and applying it as needed, to regularly scheduled handwashing breaks with soap and water.
  8. Classroom cleaning. All surfaces should be disinfected frequently.
  9. Daily screening. At the very least, teachers and children should be asked about symptoms, with a temperature check. Even better if there is virus testing available.
  10. Testing. Whenever a child, teacher, or other school-based adult has symptoms, they should stay home, and get tested. There should also be randomized or regular universal testing, because so many children who get COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
  11. Tracing and isolation. If someone tests positive, it’s essential to trace all those with whom they have been in close contact. The person who tests positive and their contacts should self-isolate for two weeks.
  12. Getting to school. For busing to be safe, everyone must wear a mask and practice social distancing, which means much smaller numbers than usual.

Most of these factors are out of your control, but knowing what to pay attention to can help you assess your risks, and inform your back-to-school decision. No matter what you decide, it will not be perfect. School is inherently risky now, so your job is to assess your family’s unique blend of risk factors, vulnerabilities, and constraints. What works for you may not be the best solution for others. Go easy on yourself for whatever decision you make, and respect whatever decisions your friends, colleagues, and family members make. Kindness and respect are more important now than ever.

Daily Parenting Priorities in the Time of COVID-19

Once you’ve made your decision about school, proceed with it, staying open to the changing situation, ready to adjust if necessary. This is a year like no other, and our most important objective is to get through it safely and as well as possible. Here’s a checklist of daily parenting priorities to help you do that:

  1. Do your best to keep yourself healthy, calm, and centered.
  2. Make sure your child feels loved and cherished.
  3. Keep your child as safe as reasonably possible.
  4. Help them feel calm.
  5. Listen—really listen—to their fears and hopes.
  6. Laugh together as often as possible.
  7. Make time for all the normal healthy things: sleep, good nutrition, outdoor exercise, time in nature.
  8. Provide opportunities for creative self-expression: dance, music, art, writing.
  9. Try to ensure your child is learning something.
  10. Get help if and when you need it.

If you can do all this, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your child is going to school, or whether or not they’re doing online learning. Wouldn’t it be great to look back on this as a time of happy family-building, to hear your kids tell their kids twenty or thirty years from now about the funny things they did during the pandemic of 2020?


“To Stop COVID-19 Spread in Schools, Start with Local Data and Do the Math,” by Suzanne Leigh…

“How to Reopen Schools Safely During COVID-19, According to Pediatricians,” by Nina Bai…

“COVID-19: Guidance for School Reopening,” by SickKids, Toronto…

“Joint Statement on Reopening Schools,” by SickKids, CHEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre, McMaster Children’s Hospital and Unity Health Toronto…

“Determining the Optimal Strategy for Reopening Schools, the Impact of Test and Trace Interventions, and the Risk of Occurrence of a Second COVID-19 Epidemic Wave in the UK: A Modelling Study,” by Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths et al.…

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