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Ellis: Sending Your Child Back to School- Or Not

By Glenn Ellis

As many of you are reading this column, the burning question across the country is, “should I send my child back into a school in the middle of the worst pandemic in recent history?”

This is probably the worst, and most difficult, decision that many parents and families are being forced to make, thus far, in this pandemic. I want to emphasize “thus far” because it is clear that we are a long way from not only the end, but possibly even the worst of COVID-19 and all its “collateral damage”.

Even though some countries around the world have reopened their schools, none of them have attempted to have children go back to school with the cases and deaths as high as America’s. On top of that, the scientific research about the virus’ transmission in classrooms is scarce or limited at best.

Let me, once again, be clear that my column is solely for the purpose of presenting vetted information, so you can make informed decisions. For too long, and too often, many of our health and medical decisions are embedded in, or wrapped in fear, limited information; or denial. Rarely do we benefit from complete credible information; delivered in layperson’s language, that you can actually use in your daily lives. Well, here I am for such a time as this.

When it comes to reopening schools, there are so many layers to the considerations.

So, you see, this is not a decision that any of us should make based on whether the “officials” say it’s ok or not. As we have seen through the course of this pandemic, not only does our understanding of the virus continuously change, but the “officials” have, with all due respect, been all over the place with guidelines and recommendations. If nothing else, we should know by now that we should be prepared to make the best decisions for ourselves, our families, and communities. In light of that, we must do our best to make informed decisions.

First the science: Here’s what we do know (today) about COIVD-19 and children. The current evidence shows that children between the ages of 5-12 are less likely to get infected; they are also less likely to transmit the virus. Now, be clear, the operative phrase is “less likely.” Make no mistake, this is a deadly virus, and “less likely” doesn’t mean it isn’t still deadly in children.

Looking at the research from some school openings in different European countries, it seems there is scant data to suggest that sending your child back to school poses anywhere near what happened with bars, clubs, restaurants, opening back up too soon. In fact, only one school actually had to close due to an outbreak.

One (important) caveat; almost all of the European schools were in countries that went into lockdown earlier and did not reopen schools in the height of the numbers of cases and deaths.

One of the greater concerns is how to protect students in schools from being infected by teachers, staff, parents, or other students. Take the time to thoroughly get this question answered for yourself. This is no time to “follow the crowd.” We see all around us, every day, the wide range of seriousness people are giving the threats of COVID-19.

Call the school; talk to the principal; talk with the teacher(s); arrange a walk-through; carefully go over the route your child takes from home to school, and back.

Another consideration is your child’s health. Special thought has to be given to what you know the be your child’s health status. This is particularly important when we think about the huge numbers of students in public schools with asthma; allergies; auto-immune disorders; etc.

The sanitizers, disinfectants; and other chemicals for cleaning could wreak havoc on a child with any one of these, or a number of other health conditions. These are known triggers, so make certain that the schools have made the necessary precautions and/or consider if being exposed to the chemicals is too much of a risk for your child.

These children are also deserving of thought around the wearing of facemasks. It is likely most, if not all, schools will require the children to wear face masks. Make the time, to see how your child handles keeping a face mask on all day, so you can have a level of comfort about whether your child can handle what’s going to be expected of him. In addition, it will give you an idea of what all the other students in the school will have to do to keep each other safe.

One “face mask tip”;  when getting mask(s) for your child, if you choose a cotton mask , be sure that you wash it in scent and dye-free detergent; otherwise, you could aggravate the situation in school for your child, if they already have respiratory challenges.

This, as I said, may be one of the toughest. Give it your best decision-making powers!


Glenn Ellis, MPH is Visiting Scholar at The National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee University and a Harvard Medical School Research Bioethics Fellow. He is author of Which Doctor? and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com