In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in the COVID-19 pandemic, economic depression, and social injustice and your most basic choices become stress-inducing nightmares. There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are ways to assess and respond to risk.
Two years ago, most families wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling their kids out of school. But nearly 38 million COVID cases later, the safety of schools in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee. Data from last school year suggests that schools are not a major site of transmission, particularly when precautions are in place. But with precautions like masks waning and the Omicron variant on the loose, it only makes sense to be worried for young kids who aren’t yet eligible to get the COVID vaccine. That being said, in-person school is incredibly important for kids and is a priority despite the pandemic. “Group learning and participatory activity is a huge part of appropriate developmental learning,” says Susan Coffin, MD, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
There are real health risks associated with sending the kids back to school — risks that extend beyond children who are immunocompromised and otherwise at high risk for COVID complications. Asymptomatic kids can still develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome and long COVID, and they can spread the virus, particularly to members of their household.
Health and developmental concerns are real, but so are economic concerns and worries about the mental wellbeing of parents. Holding down a job while directing at-home learning is impossible for many parents and difficult to the point of maddening for many others.
Not all parents get to choose how their kid attends school this fall as some schools are only offering classes in person. But if you have a choice, it can be a massive headache.
That’s a lot of risks to consider. Let’s map them out.
Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the School Decision
Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, homeschooling, hybrid learning, and in-person learning. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public and personal health, child development, child psychology, and family economics.
A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as returning to school.
For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.
Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.
The Four Factors
If you put the decision to go back to school on a risk matrix, there are four factors to assess.
- Health: The risk that the action has on public and personal health.
- For example, afterschool programs increase the risk of spreading COVID because they’re often crowded and may include close-contact sports.
- Development: The risk the action has on delaying your child’s education and social/mental development.
- For example, school and afterschool programs are going to be best not only for teaching your kid but also for socialization.
- Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s mental health.
- For example, a parent’s stress often impacts their child. If you’re worried about your kid’s health going back to school, they’re probably going to worry too.
- Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.
- For example, homeschooling means that one parent won’t be able to work full-time, dropping your family income.
The Three Scenarios
Total Score = 17
- If anyone in your household is unvaccinated and at high risk for severe COVID, staying home is the best option for personal and public health.
- Remote learning means parents seldom get alone time away from their kids. This can take a toll on the whole family’s mental health.
- It’s nearly impossible to get a full work day in while homeschooling, which can mean less income and greater financial stress.
- Without peers to interact with in person, children miss out on social play crucial to their development.
Total Score = 10
- This option — spending half the week in the classroom and half at home doing remote learning — is only available to some families.
- Riskier than homeschooling to health, hybrid schedules are safer than full-time classes in person, but only so long as kids stay home on off days.
- Hybrid school schedules give kids at least some of the social play they need for appropriate development and parents at least some days of focused work.
Total Score = 8
- In-person school is best in areas with low community transmission of the coronavirus and for households that are vaccinated and don’t include anyone at high risk for severe COVID.
- A full school day gives parents more time to get their work done or go into the office if needed. It gives children more social play and a more conducive learning environment.
- Although parents may stress over their children’s health, they will be relieved to have a break from 24/7 parenting.
The Bottom Line:
When we mapped these three scenarios, remote learning was the riskiest choice with a score of 17. Hybrid schooling was only slightly riskier than in-person schooling with scores of 10 and 8, respectively. However, every family is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of a choice for you.
To get a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, your child falling behind in school for the “development” factor. For at-home learning, the risk of falling behind could be “Likely” or “Very Likely” depending on your circumstances. If your child does fall behind, the consequences may be of medium-low severity, so the factor would have a severity rating of “2” or “3.” Repeat this analysis for each factor.
For the “public health” factor, the chance of your child getting and spreading COVID at school is probably “Very Unlikely” or “Unlikely,” depending on where you live. If your child does get or transmit the disease, the severity of the outcome may be “2” or “3.”
Making the Decision
Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should send the kids back to school. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.
Ready to go back to school?
Ask some questions of the leaders in your school and advocate for the safest environment.
Questions to Ask Your School:
- Are all staff and eligible students mandated to get the vaccine? If not, what percent are vaccinated?
- Are masks required for everyone?
- What is the plan for lunchtime, when masks can’t be worn?
- How will you get students to social distance?
- Will class sizes be limited?
- Will my student interact with multiple adults or just one teacher?
- Will there be an increase in outdoor classes?
- Will you screen students and staff for COVID every day?
- How often will you require COVID testing?
- How will you react to a positive test result?