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Is It Safe to Send My Kid Back to School?

There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but this risk assessment matrix and decision tree can help parents make the best one.

fatherly logo The Decider

In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in a pandemic, economic depression, and civic unrest 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.

At the beginning of the year, most families wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling their kids out of school. But more than seven million COVID-19 cases later, the safety of schools in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee. Though data from the first few weeks of fall classes suggests K-12 schools may not pose a huge coronavirus risk, no school will be able to credibly claim to keep kids safe from the virus until there’s both a vaccine and herd immunity, which experts predict is months off at the earliest.

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-19 complications. Asymptomatic kids can spread the virus to vulnerable members of their community. “There may be increased risk for other members of society if you return to activity such as normal instruction without some protection,” says Susan Coffin, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, adding that there are also risks to not returning to school. “Group learning and participatory activity is a huge part of appropriate developmental learning.”

Fatherly IQ
  1. Do you plan on sending your kids back to school this fall?
    Yes. I trust that our schools are taking precautions.
    No. We don't feel that proper precautions are in place.
    I'm not sure yet. It depends on how things progress.
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Health and developmental concerns are real, but so are economic concerns and concerns surrounding 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, 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 actions you’re assessing — in this case, homeschooling, hybrid learning, in-person learning, and sending your kid to school and afterschool care. Then, identify the potential consequences of those actions. The consequences we will consider are to public health, child development, child psychology, and family economics.

The matrices compare the severity of a consequence (from 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 an action. Of course, these risk matrices require a bit of guesswork. COVID-19 risk varies from community to community.

The consequences in the matrix fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can take the action without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a consequence falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different actions will have different mixes of red, yellow, and green consequences. And each action’s consequence, should it happen, will have a different severity rating from 0 (insignificant) to 5 (catastrophic). No choice is perfect. The total score listed below the matrix is a number to help you get a sense of the total risk associated with the choice.

Different families will have different risk tolerances. Wealthy families can take on economic risk. Healthy families can take on some risk of exposure. These matrices should be read in light of personal considerations, not as generalized risk maps.

  • Public health: The risk that the action has on public health.
    • For example, afterschool programs increase risk of spreading COVID-19 because they are 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 giving them more time for socialization.
  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s psychology.
    • For example, a parent’s stress and psychology 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.

Mapping the Risk:

Total Score = 27

The family that opts for at-home learning realizes it may not be best for their mental health. But mom or dad is already a stay-at-home parent, so the economics risks aren’t as great for them as they are for other families.

On the flip side, the homeschooled child may have parents that work full-time, but they also live with their diabetic grandpa and want to keep him safe. In either case, teacher and student are going to get sick of each other fast, if they aren’t already.

Total Score = 19

Hybrid learning, or spending some days at school in person and some learning at home, is only offered by select school districts across the country — most notably, New York City’s. The family that cashes in on hybrid learning probably doesn’t have the option for full-time school in person. They may be frustrated by an imperfect hybrid system, but they don’t have time to homeschool their kid and hold down their jobs without freaking out 24/7.

Total Score = 18

The kid who masks up for in-person classes has parents that can’t quit their jobs, but one is able to leave early for pick-up when the final bell rings. The family is worried about COVID-19, but they have also discussed with their child the importance of wearing a mask and advocated for safety measures in their school. Though fear of the virus is stressful, they’re glad to return to some semblance of normalcy — and they’re glad their kid won’t be falling behind in school.

Total Score = 12

The child who attends classes and sticks around for afterschool activities has parents that need their full-time jobs to keep the family finances secure. Though they worry about their kid’s and community’s health, they can take some relief that their child is getting the schooling and socialization they need.

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:

  • How will you get students to social distance?
  • Will there be physical barriers between children in classrooms?
  • Will class sizes be limited?
  • Will my student interact with multiple adults or just their teacher?
  • Will there be an increase in outdoor classes?
  • How will you get children to social distance on school buses?
  • How many kids will be allowed on the playground at once?
  • What activities will you allow during recess and gym class?
  • How will you enforce social distancing during recess and gym class?
  • Are you staggering school start and end times and lunchtimes?
  • How will classrooms be cleaned?
  • Will teachers and students wear masks?
  • Will you screen students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure every day?