5 Epidemiologist and Public Health Moms on Their Children’s Back-to-School Plans

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Working parents have been making difficult decisions since they became, well, working parents. But the 2020-2021 school year might present the toughest dilemma yet: If your child’s school is open, do you send them and reap the benefits of in-person instruction and socialization, or have them learn from home, if you’re able to have an adult stay with them, to limit their potential exposure to the virus? Some schools around the country have opened only to later mandate quarantining of certain students and staffers. Others aren’t opening at all, or at least not for this marking period.

While no parent knows for sure what the best option is for your family, we talked to moms who are also epidemiologists and public health experts to find out what their kids are doing this school year—and why.

Bertha Hidalgo, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology

“I have 7- and 11-year-old boys, starting 2nd and 6th grades. I have signed them both up for virtual learning, at least for the first nine weeks, longer if local COVID-19 numbers have not improved. My decision was based on the following four things:

  1. I am able to work from home for the foreseeable future, thus can accommodate supervision at home while they engage in virtual schooling.

  2. Many of our friends DO NOT have the choice to stay home, so staying home meant two fewer kids in the classrooms, thus allowing teachers to have a chance at reduced class sizes.

  3. My oldest is transitioning to middle school, where podding is virtually impossible. Not to mention, the size of his school is FAR larger than the size of the younger one’s elementary school. The South Korea and other studies also point at increased risk for infection around age 10, comparable to adults, so staying home was the best option for him at this time.

  4. At the time we made the decision to go virtual, state percent positive numbers were between 17 and 20 percent, with local percent positive numbers above 10 percent. They are decreasing slightly, but still well above the 3 to 5 percent that would dictate a safe return to school.”

“My children’s school is starting with all-virtual learning through at least the first quarter (end of October) and I would be very, very surprised if they went to in-person instruction at any point this academic year. The local Board of Health declined to increase restrictions after reviewing my letter urging authorities to close down non-essential businesses and gatherings, and we have much more COVID in circulation here than the teachers’ union has said is acceptable for them to consider returning to in-person instruction.

My first-grader and fifth-grader will not be in a school building this year unless there’s some sort of miracle. It would take:

  1. almost no cases in the community. Definitely less than 5 per 100,000, and I would still be jumpy at that level given how weak our contact tracing, testing, and support for schools to do this well is likely to be.

  2. structured, routine testing in the school setting. Some confidence that there is surveillance to detect an outbreak before it spreads to a lot of people.

  3. a plan for what happens when a child or staff member tests positive. Will the whole school close? Will the cohort of kids be quarantined? Will teachers who are too sick to work for six or eight weeks get extra sick pay?

  4. some in-school mitigation plan to reduce the likelihood of transmitting disease in school buildings. Like wearing masks, having only younger grades in-person in small and closed cohorts, etc.

I’ve seen little sign that any of these are in the works [in my area], with a couple possible, partial exceptions. So I’m just planning on them being at home this school year.”

Diana Cervantes, DrPH, Director, MPH Epidemiology Program, and Assistant Professor, Epidemiology, at the University of North Texas Health Science Center

“My daughter is 11 and is starting 7th grade. She attends a small charter school and will be attending her classes online at least until mid-September. She may return to in-person classes if the school has a good plan to do so, which due to the size of the school and the amount of involvement required of the parents I think is more feasible than a larger district. But I don’t see in-person classes happening for most districts and if they do, I think it will likely not be for long. I think there will be too many cases in children and subsequently adults so the schools will shut down again. I’m basically planning to teach my kiddo online for the rest of the year. But I am pretty fortunate as I get to work from home and my husband is a middle-school teacher, so he can help our daughter quite a bit.”

Alison M. Buttenheim, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Health Policy, Perelman School of Medicine, and Senior Fellow, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, at the University of Pennsylvania

“I’m a social/behavioral scientist with a Ph.D. in public health. My kids are both college-aged but will not be heading to campus this fall. My 18-year-old graduated from high school and had always planned on a gap year before heading to Bryn Mawr. Phew. My 21-year-old finished her junior year at Yale from home this spring and didn’t love Zoom U—she decided to take a leave of absence for at least the fall semester and possibly the full year as she would prefer to finish her senior year with face-to-face instruction.

I don’t know to what extent either kid’s decision was due to pressure from public health/Nerdy Girl mom, but I do think they got a pretty realistic sense of what the epi landscape was going to look like on campus from all my grumbling (in real life and on social media). If either of them were headed to campus, I would be more worried about:

  1. the suboptimal social, residential, and educational experience compared to “regular” college

  2. my kid helping to contribute to community spread than I would be about the kid herself getting sick.

If my older kid were returning to Yale this fall, I would on the one hand be “comfortable” with that decision for the following four reasons:

  1. Testing and isolation. Yale plans to test the entire community frequently (students will be tested twice per week), so they should be able to identify and isolate cases quickly and prevent large outbreaks.

  2. Distancing. The university has organized residential and dining services to minimize contact, and has masking and other distancing rules in place. If followed, all of this should reduce transmission. And basically all the courses are being taught remotely, so exposure in classrooms has been reduced to near zero.

  3. Local epidemiology. Connecticut has the 4th lowest (tied with New Hampshire) 7-day new cases per 100,000 metric, meaning community transmission is relatively low. So my kid is not entering a community with a lot of circulating disease.

  4. Contributing to local transmission through travel. My kid would be traveling to Connecticut from another fairly low-transmission state (Pennsylvania is the 9th lowest), and would be tested pre-arrival and on arrival, so I would not worry too much about her introducing a case of COVID into the Yale or New Haven community. This is one factor I wish more parents would think about. The question is not just, ‘Is the college town a safe place to send my kid right now?’ It’s also, ‘Is my kid a safe person to send to the college town right now?’

Even with this fairly pandemic-ideal situation, young adult brains are not wired for social distancing and other restrictions. I think it’s going to be exceptionally difficult for thousands of undergraduates to maintain social distancing and masking guidelines this fall, particularly after being cooped up at home since March…I’m just more comfortable knowing that my kid is not in the mix.”

“When my daughter’s college informed the students and parents that they were opening and receiving students on campus, I was sure my recent high school graduate, Olivia, would make the ‘right choice.’ She’s heard me on Zooms and national media advocating against school re-opening. In my professional opinion, we are not ready. There are too many unknowns and a lack of community-wide testing in school-aged children, including college students. But I trusted that Olivia was able to make this decision for herself.

On decision day, she simply said, ‘I’m going.’ I was shocked. How could she come to this conclusion? She told me the testing protocol at her college and reminded me that despite being around people who tested positive, she had not contracted the virus. She gave back my own words: ‘Honor the protocols.’ She reassured me if the promises made by her college were not honored and enforced, she would return home.

Move-in day was quite a pleasant surprise. All parents and students were masked up. Her dorm room, designed for two students, was now a room for one. She has had two days of her freshman year in the college experience and says ’so far, so good.’ We agreed she would be tested on campus once every two weeks, which is available for free to students. We plan to stay in communication about this seminal transition in her life and her experiences related to COVID exposure and on-campus practices.

This choice was hers to make. I would have made a different choice and am happy that my two older children’s schools opted to move all classes online for fall semester. As a mom epidemiologist, I have a deeper appreciation for the power of choice but remain committed to the power of public health.”



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