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What to Do About Back-to-School: A Pediatrician’s Perspective

July 15, 2020

It’s unlike any back-to-school season any of us have experienced, and many parents are struggling with what to do in light of COVID-19. Yesterday, Governor Cooper announced that schools will reopen under “Plan B” which will vary based on each school district and in some cases, by school.

This announcement means that whether your children attend public school, charter school, or private school – chances are, you may have a choice as to whether your children attend in-person or virtual school. As a pediatrician, I often get asked, “What are YOU going to do?”

While I’m happy to answer that question (we’ll get to that), the more important question is “What’s right for your family?” While it’s certainly not an easy decision, it’s one that should be made within each family with careful consideration of all the factors that play into your lives.

Making the Choice That’s Right For Your Family

We’re living in unprecedented times – and everyone is simply doing the best they can under the circumstances. That’s why there is no “right” answer when it comes to school.  While the American Academy of Pediatrics and the North Carolina Pediatric Society have both issued statements in support of in-person education, that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everyone.

Here are some considerations and tips to help you and your family make the choice that’s right for you.

#1 – Evaluate Your Family Situation.

Do you have elderly relatives living with you or nearby who interact with your children on a regular basis? Is anyone in your house immunocompromised? Will having your children in school eliminate a significant hardship (ie. food security, safety, etc.)? Or, will sending your children to in-person school cause you or other family members unmanageable anxiety?  Weighing all of these factors may help you make the choice that’s right for your children.

#2 – Consider Your Child’s Personality & Feelings.

Some children just don’t learn or function well in a virtual school environment. Others may be independent learners who enjoy taking things at their own pace with little guidance. Many children may not have the self-control to handle a new set of rules, or may even be too anxious to thrive in a physical classroom with all that’s going on around us.  While there’s no “global” right decision, your child(ren)’s personalities may lead you to the best decision for them.

#3 – Look at the Bigger Picture.

I believe this decision is about much more than ‘Are my kids going to get the virus?’ It’s about their physical health as well as their emotional and psychological health. We also know it’s about their learning and development – both in academics and in socialization, human interaction, etc.

While some families have the resources to invest in their child’s learning, development and emotional health outside of a physical school setting – many do not. Striking a balance of finding the setting that provides the greatest physical, emotional and psychological health benefits combined makes this decision very individual for each family.

#4 – Stay Informed.

Look at the data and use it to better understand the risks of the virus. Everyone’s circumstances and comfort levels with risk vary – so while the data provides specific numbers, this information will generate different decisions because humans don’t all think the same way.

Here are some recent stats to consider:

  • According to the NC Pediatric Society, fewer than 2% of COVID-19 cases in US are in children. When children do get infected, they generally have mild or no symptoms. New evidence is showing that children rarely pass the infection to their caregivers.
  • According to the largest study released of 582 children with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 out of Europe (published in The Lancet on June 25, 2020), the mortality rate is less than one percent (0.68% to be exact). Some experts believe that because this study only included hospitalized patients, the true mortality rate is likely significantly lower than 0.68% in children.
  • Across the state, North Carolina has more than 10 million residents. Of those, NC has nearly 89,500 confirmed cases and just over 1,100 hospitalizations.

Regardless of what you decide is right for your family, it’s important to regulate our commentary, responses and opinions in front of our children – and to avoid the urge to judge others’ decisions or choices.

Whether you agree or disagree with government leaders, school administrators or neighbors and friends about the choices that are being made, it’s best to temper your emotions and responses in front of your children. Kids hear and feel absolutely everything around them.

Our ability to regulate how we deal with so much uncertainty and so much loss of control can be a positive life lesson for our kids. If you are feeling frustrated, scared, anxious, disappointed or angry – that’s totally normal, but try to share those feelings with a spouse or friend out of earshot of the children.

Finally, when it comes to really getting back to school, remember that children will do best when we present an attitude of hope, excitement for learning, and encouragement. While this is easier said than done, it’s something we can all strive for as we brace for a crazy ride this fall.


About Karen Chilton, MD

Dr. Karen Chilton is a board-certified pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer of WakeMed Children’s.  She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is a member of the American Association for Physician Leadership.

*Dr. Chilton’s kids attend a public charter school that has decided to start virtually for the first month of school. After that, Dr. Chilton feels that her children will do best with in-person learning if the option is presented.