It’s consuming every mother—every parent—I know. This decision we’ve never had to make before, and never expected we’d be forced to make. Most of us aren’t teachers. We don’t want to homeschool. We work full or part time or have a sea of babies and toddlers under our feet and have no idea how we’ll manage this continuation of e-learning/at-home learning. And yet we can’t fathom sending our kids into the unpredictable COVID-19 petri dish that schools will inevitably be.
So we turn to experts for advice. What do does the medical community recommend we do? What are they doing with their own children? Maybe if we do enough research or read enough articles or talk to enough experts, our path will become clear and we’ll know what the right choice is. Or maybe we’ll still continue to fumble through this fog, not knowing what’s right, praying we’re making the best decision, praying they don’t get sick or bring this virus home to our household, praying their teachers don’t fall victim to it, and praying, most of all, for COVID-19 to finally, eventually leave our world.
Well, one doctor in California named Anita Gupta says her kids won’t be going back to in-person instruction. Not yet, at least.
California’s governor has recently set a mandate that all counties on the “COVID-19 watchlist” have their schools open with distance learning. Living within one of those counties, Dr. Gupta’s decision was made for her. But, she says, she had already chosen that option either way. “As a parent and doctor, I am not yet comfortable with sending kids to school in a few weeks with the current lack of understanding of the virus surges and little knowledge of what the virus can do in kids,” Gupta tells Scary Mommy. “There are no ‘redos’ in kids. We can’t take any chances, especially if we don’t understand the impact of the virus in children.”
As an internationally recognized board-certified pain anesthesiologist and health policy alumnus from Princeton University, known as the Nation’s Leading Doctor & Pharmacist focused on pain, drug safety and policy, Dr. Anita Gupta is a big name in the medical industry. She is currently an Assistant Professor, Adj., at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care and has been an active healthcare professional for over 20 years. And, she is currently serving as a member of the National Academies of Science’s Global Forum and has served at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a special government advisor.
So yeah, we might want to consider what she has to say.
Gupta says her decision isn’t just about her kids. She’s also considering teachers and staff, and the risks related to having them in the classroom, as well as the lack of consensus we’ve seen on the national level. “No clear uniform option exists across the U.S.,” she explains. “There has been no clear path forward from a policy standpoint on what schools should do. This has created confusion and parents are now left to decide.”
And, Gupta adds, “Schools that do open place teachers in the frontline of risk to contract the virus. Teachers may potentially infect others in the community, leading to further spread.”
So not only do teachers put themselves at risk, but packing so many people inside small spaces like classrooms, Gupta believes, this is an unknown and major risk as teachers leave the school building at the end of the day and carry the germs they’ve picked up into the greater community.
Furthermore, children tend to be largely asymptomatic, so we don’t know the risk they’ll pose to the greater community, particularly to older adults, and we must take that into consideration. As Dr. Gupta emphasizes, this is yet another risk that remains unknown.
Without consistent policy, without knowing exactly what protective measures and equipment will be provided, and without knowing the true risk presented when so many students and teachers congregate in the same building for hours on end, especially in states enduring a major surge as California is, Dr. Gupta says we cannot safely open schools yet.
We interviewed Dr. Gupta personally, and she did admit to understanding why the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized the importance of kids returning to in-person instruction. “We recognize that children learn best when physically present in the classroom. But children get much more than academics at school. They also learn social and emotional skills at school, get healthy meals and exercise, mental health support and other services that cannot be easily replicated online,” their website stated on July 10.
“I agree with what the AAP is stating about the social and emotional benefits of school. There’s no question about that. But what’s in the best interest of our children and patients and communities right now? Everyone wants and prefers classroom instruction, but we want to do it when it’s safe,” Dr. Gupta says.
Because, although the AAP does emphasize the value of in-person instruction, they also say that “we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”
Listen to science?! And to evidence?! And to educators and administrators?! What novel concepts. Thank you, AAP.
Dr. Gupta also recognizes how flawed distance learning is. “There’s a digital divide that is putting tremendous strain on parents and families. This is not a perfect solution, but when you consider the potential risks and the unknown, we really don’t have much of a choice given this unprecedented situation.”
However, despite the extra strain at-home learning is putting on families, especially those without technology or without parents who can provide the help kids might need at home, Gupta applauds the state of California for their efforts. “Meaningful, rigorous instruction has to occur either way, whether it’s in-person or virtual,” she says, but “the state of California is doing everything they can to make sure that every child and every parent is equally served.”
Across the board, regardless of your career or what state you live in, this is hard on parents as well as children. Gupta says it feels like she’s working three or four jobs while maintaining her career and overseeing her children’s distance learning. “I’m not a trained teacher. I wonder if my child is getting the optimal education they require for their level. I am concerned about the quality of their education, but I am hopeful that in August we will receive a curriculum for distance learning that meets the metrics of their grade level,” she says.
Despite the challenges, however, Dr. Gupta tells Scary Mommy that her overall philosophy on dealing with COVID-19 and the re-opening of schools is this: “Prevention is better than the cure.”
As a mother, Dr. Gupta did say that the one positive to come out of this whole experience is that we all have a teachable moment here. We all have a civic responsibility to do our part. This isn’t just about our own health and safety, but also the greater good. It is our duty to help protect the public’s health as well as our own, and it’s important that we discuss that with our children as they must make sacrifices like, for example, not going to school.
Gupta ended her conversation by emphasizing that we all function within many roles—we are parents, and we are also community members. Some parents are also doctors. Some are also teachers. We have to choose what’s best for our families based on all of those hats we wear.
But, Dr. Gupta says, “We are moms at the end of the day. That’s our biggest job.”