Are parents comfortable sending their children to school in the fall?

can schools reopen coronavirus
Photo via Kelly Hunter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

With only about a month or two before children across the United States typically return to school, the coronavirus pandemic has left plenty of questions about whether students will return to physical classrooms or will resume distance learning as they did in the spring. Basically, is it safe to send kids back to school?

If the Trump administration has its way, schools across the country will indeed open their doors in the fall.

“We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” President Donald Trump said during a roundtable discussion at the White House on July 7. “Get open in the fall. We want your schools open.”

Senior administration officials, on the other hand, were a bit more diplomatic with the realities of getting kids back in classrooms—telling reporters on a background call that any decisions to reopen public schools will likely remain local.

“Our goal right now is to work hand in hand with the local jurisdictions now to help let them see the best ways to reopen these schools in a safe way and get back to where we would have really preferred to have been through the spring of this year,” said one official. “Which was to have that active educational component available to the students.”

The U.S. is also not alone in this dilemma. Schools in 191 countries had to close due to the pandemic, according to the United Nations, affecting more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million teachers across the world. 

Yet, schools in many countries—such as Germany, Denmark, Vietnam, New Zealand, and China—have begun to cautiously reopen. The stark difference between the U.S. and these countries, however, is overall low rates of new infections and a reasonable ability to trace outbreaks. By comparison, the U.S. is handling the coronavirus outbreak the worst out of any affluent country, and the federal government has done little to help schools reopen.

Germany reported just 35 new cases per one million residents during the past week; the United States had more than 1,000. 

The U.S. federal government also has not committed funding to help schools reopen safely, as other countries have seen. For example, according to a recent New York Times morning briefing, Hong Kong is covering the cleaning costs for its schools, and South Korea is helping schools open daycare centers during business hours. Meanwhile, Germany is helping to combine remote and in-person learning by subsidizing laptops for low-income students, and Italy has sent federal dollars to schools to pay for more teachers, student desks, masks, and other equipment.

Taking all these elements into consideration, it should come as little surprise that many American parents are more hesitant in sending their kids back to school.

In a survey of more than 1,100 parents conducted by Outschool, a “marketplace of live online classes for K-12 learners,” it found that 61% are not comfortable sending their children back to school until a vaccine is developed. Nearly 40% of parents said that school closures made them more likely to consider homeschooling their children in the future, despite the fact that nearly 60% rated their child’s remote learning experience as “average or below average.”

An Ipsos poll conducted with USA Today found similar results.

Nearly 90% of parents with a school-aged child admitted to being “very or somewhat likely” to switch to at-home learning if schools reopen in the fall. Related, 68% of parents said their child would likely find it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines at school, and 70% would probably ask their child to wear a mask at school.

Some pediatricians are on the side of sending kids back to school

In May, the CDC released guidelines for how schools could reopen safely in the fall. In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a guideline of COVID-19 planning considerations, which “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” But the CDC Director Robert Redfield noted that it’d also be a difficult call for schools who are situated in coronavirus hotspots.

The two-pronged approach cites “mounting evidence” that transmission of the virus in young children is uncommon, as well as the fact that “schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being.”

The AAP argues that, based on poor experiences with remote learning in the spring, continued efforts are likely to cause severe learning loss and increased social isolation—which can then result in serious social, emotional, and health issues in the future. These repercussions are also more likely to affect low-income children, particularly in urban areas, and children with learning disabilities.

A recent study published by Nature Medicine—which sampled data from China, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Canada, and South Korea—found that children are about half as likely to contract the coronavirus. And when they do, they typically experience very mild effects. Just one in five children aged 10-19 experienced any clinical symptoms, compared with 69% of adults over 70. 

The CDC also found, in a survey of 149,760 people, that children 17 and under (approximately 22% of the population) account for fewer than 2% of confirmed cases in the U.S. Children are also extremely unlikely to die from coronavirus, as the analysis found just three deaths reported among the pediatric cases.

All things considered, there is still plenty of pressure from parents to keep their children safe—not to mention, the health risks of elderly family members becoming exposed to the disease.

“The risk to the kids is low, and it’s not bad for me or my partner, but I do worry about them going back to school and then seeing my parents,” Kirsten Minshall, a father of two boys aged 9 and 11, told MIT Technology Review. “It’s all about weighing up the risks of COVID-19, the kids getting proper schooling, and looking after their mental health.”

The ‘back to school’ movement keeps hitting snags

Even with the pressure to open schools for in-person learning, some of the largest school districts in the country—those in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and New York, for example—said it would begin the fall semester with students learning virtually.

Making matters worse for the idea that kids should go back to school:

On Aug. 2, it was reported that a junior high school in Indiana discovered a student had tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day of the new school year. The student was in classes for at least part of the day.

On Aug. 3, it was reported that 260 employees in a suburban Atlanta school system had tested positive for coronavirus or had been exposed to the disease. Gwinnett County schools were already set to open for online-learning on Aug. 12. The majority of the employees apparently were infected via community spread, not by coming in to work. It’s unclear if the school system will change its approach to the 2020-21 school year.

Sources: NPR, Outschool, MIT Technology Review, USA Today/Ipsos poll

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