Welcome to Parent vs. Pandemic, a Parade.com series for parents who are navigating uncharted territory during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parade.com launched Parent vs. Pandemic as a way for concerned parents to get the solutions and help they need as they navigate tough choices—from pod planning to virtual learning. Here’s how to navigate pandemic safety as your child prepares for a return to school.
When COVID-19 first became widespread in the U.S., most schools across the country closed. Fearing for their children’s safety, many parents kept their kids home as much as possible.
But, after months of urging parents to keep their kids socially distanced from others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that families send their children back to school. Some school districts in Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Louisiana, and Mississippi have already started in-person learning, while others are gearing up for either fully remote schooling or a hybrid mix of in-person and at-home learning.
It can be hard to know what to think if your child is scheduled to start in-person learning after months of being told that it’s safer to keep them separate from people outside their household. So, does this mean that play dates are now OK? What about interacting with other households? Are all bets off with COVID-19 prevention now? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d think.
Experts admit that the messaging is confusing.
Currently, the CDC says on its website that “an important guiding principle to remember is that the more people children interact with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” However, the CDC also urges parents to send their children back to school, noting that, “reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America’s greatest assets—our children—while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff, and all their families.”
At the same time, the organization also discourages in-person playdates. The CDC specifically says online that virtual playdates are “lowest risk,” while infrequent, socially distant playdates with are “medium risk.” The “highest risk” is having frequent indoor playdates with multiple friends and family members where people are not spaced out.
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Rob Keder, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, admits that it can be “confusing” for parents to differentiate between sending their children to in-person schooling and having playdates outside of school. Lawrence Kleinman, M.D., survey/data core director at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, agrees. “The guidance from the CDC one week looked very different from the week before, without there being new science,” he says. “It’s confusing to everyone.”
Many have said on Twitter that they don’t understand why it’s deemed OK for kids to go to school, but not to do pretty much anything else. “Once we were ‘strongly advised’ to go back to work & to send our kids back to school (& c’mon five-year-olds are back at school & they can’t social distance) all bets were off,” one wrote. “With kids, once schools open, all bets are off w/regard to risk mitigation,” another said.
But that’s “incredibly faulty reasoning,” says Jeffrey Starke, M.D., professor of pediatrics-infectious disease at the Baylor College of Medicine. “Just because you’re back to school doesn’t mean you should stop protecting your children in other environments they go to. It’s a question of relative safety.”
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Why does this “all or nothing” mentality with COVID-19 prevention exist?
A lot of it boils down to anxiety, says psychologist Alicia Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety. “Sending your child to in-person schooling means giving up control,” she says. “You’re trusting a school system and other families to help keep your child safe.”
That loss of control can provoke anxiety, Clark says. “That’s where you get into rationalizing and sometimes being impulsive,” she says. “Then, people may think, ‘I might as well go to the gym and restaurants because all bets are off.’” It’s a way of “managing the dissonance from giving up control,” Clark says.
At the same time, this mindset can simply come out of frustration and exhaustion over the pandemic, says psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. “Parents are saying this out of the negative emotions that the pandemic has created,” he says.
Deciding to be more relaxed with coronavirus-prevention methods can also feel like a mental release to some people, Clark says. “There is a certain amount of calm and safety that comes from knowing you made certain decisions,” she says. “Even if you make a bad decision—it was your decision.”
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Despite the temptation to be more relaxed with COVID-19 rules when kids go back to school, experts urge parents to stay diligent.
“We want to make sure that people aren’t treating this as an all or none thing,” Keder. “Social distancing and other measures have been working.”
To mentally reconcile sending your child to in-person schooling while continuing to social distance them from others outside of the classroom, it’s a good idea to look at everything as a risk-benefit analysis, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University. “People shouldn’t take more risks than they absolutely need to,” he says. “School is for education; play dates aren’t.”
Explaining this difference to your child, let alone yourself, can be a “challenge,” Keder admits. That’s why he recommends at least talking to your child about the difference between school, where children are hopefully spaced out, and playdates, where staying apart is often more difficult. At the same time, he recommends praising your child for handling all of this.
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“We want to show children that we get that it’s difficult and that we’re proud of them for stepping up and dealing with the challenges that the pandemic can bring,” Keder says.
Kleiman says that “it’s not a democracy in a family” but that “kids deserve to be heard and their perspectives considered.” Still, he says, “the accountability lies with the parents, and it’s important to tell children that.” He recommends hearing your child out and then saying something like, “I love you, but I also have to make the decision that is my best judgment to keep you and all of us safe.” Overall, Kleinman says, “This is not an area where it’s open for compromise. The risks are profound.”
For your family as a whole, Watkins recommends continuing to practice the known strategies for lowering the risk of contracting COVID-19, including social distancing as much as possible, wearing masks in public, and careful hand washing. “People need to remember the virus is still highly contagious,” he says.
Keder recognizes that it’s difficult to stay vigilant, and to mentally reconcile having your child do in-person learning while continuing to keep up other methods of preventing the spread of the virus. “It’s tough, but keep it up,” he says. “This is important. We’re all in this together.”
Next, read about micro-school and learning pods!