Pediatricians say students should return to classrooms this fall, but there are still ongoing risks of COVID-19—not to mention parents worried about the safety of their children and how the heck any of this will even work.

By Melissa Mills
July 02, 2020
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With more than 2.7 million cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. to date and 55 million students home from school since March, working parents—many of whom have had to play teacher or worry about child care while attempting to work full-time—are feeling burned out and hopeless. And as if distance learning wasn't awful enough through the spring, schools are now contemplating solutions for the fall that are, on one hand, necessary, but on the other simply unrealistic.

Many schools across the country are starting to introduce sweeping new rules for the 2020-2021 season—including mandatory face coverings, social distancing, and hybrid schedules, with part in-person and part distance learning for students. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently come out with guidance urging students to return to classrooms in-person come fall while adhering to coronavirus safety precautions, citing "evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020." But they also acknowledge the very real fact that many schools just aren't big enough for all students to return and practice social distancing. While many states' education departments are offering guidelines for how schools can safely reopen, it's ultimately going to be a custom solution for each specific school.

Surely a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work in any area concerning COVID-19, but without a clear plan for what to expect when school starts back up, families are more concerned than ever. Here, parents share their biggest worries for the new school year.

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Concerns for School in the Fall

Masks and social distancing

"[My son] has asthma, so I’m worried how this would affect him if he gets it. And there’s no way a 4-year-old will social distance or wear a mask. And if they do half days or alternating schedules, will before- and after-care be over crowded?"—Katie Alvarez, Aberdeen, New Jersey

"My top concern is that schools and daycares might find it hard to enforce social distancing and other health safety measures. It is the nature of children to interact, and implementing necessary measures might prove impossible."—Reuben Yonatan, New York City

"There’s no way I can expect a 3-, 5-, and 7-year-old to wear a mask for any given period of time. Also, our preschool's curriculum is very heavy on play to learn, so I’m not sure how this will all factor in."—Stephanie Melms, Monroe Township, New Jersey

Quality of learning

"As a parent of a rising sophomore, I am definitely concerned about my daughter not being able to physically attend class this fall due to COVID-19. The nearly four months since she has been out of school have been very difficult. While I am confident my daughter would be able to complete her school work from a distance, she is missing out on so many aspects of schooling that I cannot replace for her at home. There is no substitute for sitting amongst your peers, walking down a tiled hallway, the slam of metal lockers, the excitement from the last bell ringing of the day. It is crucial for my daughter to be around her peers and her teachers for her overall wellbeing. If my daughter's school is open, she will be going back, but with obvious safety protocols in place."—Rebecca Zanolini, Nashville, Tennessee

"I have a preschooler and a kindergartener, and my biggest concern by far with the possibility of returning to school is how to curb the spread of COVID in a population (young children) that is not known for being able to keep their hands off themselves—or each other. Little children thrive on physical play and interaction, both with their friends and teachers. And on top of that, they need warmth. This is preschool we're talking about. They need love and hugs and reassurance and it is hard to imagine a post-COVID environment in which they could receive warmth from their teachers safely. I'm not sure that is possible, and when I take all of the above into account, it gives me enough pause to make me seriously consider something I've never even thought of doing before: homeschooling."—Christina Cay, Charleston, South Carolina

Hybrid schedules

"As a teacher, I'm scared that my daughter's district won't match up to mine. She's entering kindergarten and I will be really sad if she cant go to school at least some of the time. I know lots of my teacher mom friends are all nervous about how it's all going to match up between our schedules and work schedules. Locally, we all made a pact that we would try to pitch in and help however we can."—Tiffany Volze, Nutley, New Jersey

"I’ll have a first grader and one in daycare. They don’t get social distancing and I worry if they’ll even wear a mask all day. If they do staggered schedules/half days, what do working parents do? Am I going to be paying more money for care on the days/times they aren’t in school? What if I can’t afford that?"—Jen McDonald, Garwood, New Jersey

Emotional toll

"In the past few months, we have learned that COVID, due to its impacts on schooling, interactions with peers, teachers, grandparents, and other caregivers, has had a negative impact on many children’s mental health. Children have been forced to go through the five stages of grieving involving denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as they lose physical contact with many they love. Some now, however, have reached acceptance. As a psychologist and a mother of two children, I worry about the impact of this social isolation on our children’s social and emotional development. I want my 11-year-old to be able to see her friends. In many respects, she needs to physically interact with them. However, I worry that she could unknowingly pick up COVID at school and infect a grandparent or someone else she loves. The psychological toll of believing that one had harmed a loved one would be devastating. Also, if we open too early and children need to start remote schooling again, then they will be forced to go through the stages of grieving again—a mentally draining process for children and parents alike."—Erin O'Connor, New York City

Risk of COVID-19

"As a mom to two teenage girls, there is no compromise on safety measures. We want our children to stay away from harmful germs as much as possible. Regarding this, we need school administration to spend on safety kits, such as masks, gloves, and face shields."—Alessandra Kessler, Miami, Florida

“I’m concerned about schools cleaning frequently, and how—or if—their peers' families and teachers are adhering to social distancing and wearing masks.”—Yvonne Williams, Plano, Texas

"In middle school, which my older child is in, kids switch classes constantly and are always passing each other in the hallway and mix classrooms all day long. If one child gets sick, it seems like the sickness would quickly pass around the entire school. And the way classrooms are set up right now, it is not possible for kids to socially distance. In order for me to be comfortable with sending my children back to school, kids would have to remain in their classrooms all day with no mixing in the hallways or with other students."—Mikaela Walker, Orlando, Florida

Control What You Can

"Research shows that just in maintaining strong relationships with your children and stability at home, you are setting your child up for success, resilience, and adaptation—despite changes in their schooling and daily routines," says Anuja Khemka, MSW, a New York City-based author, columnist, and nonprofit leader working in education, mental health, and wellness. "When they do return to school, it is important that you manage your own anxiety about the risks involved. Children can read clues that we may not be aware of sending—from body language to subtle changes in language and leading questions—so try not to pass your own fears onto them. Instead, get to know and trust the school’s protocol and develop your own precautions, such as temperature and health checks."

What is the best-case scenario here? Does one even exist while COVID-19 is still around and there's no vaccination? So far, school is already not working for parents—and it's only July. Only time will tell how things actually net out. In the meantime, it's best to stay calm and control what you can—like surrounding your kids with love, preparing them for new school guidelines, and, if it comes down to it, deciding not to send them back to school in the fall.

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