After four months at home with our children, most of us parents are more than ready to send them back to school. Nothing about the last few months has been easy on anyone, and we’re all feeling the burnout. We need schools to reopen. But we also know it’s not safe. And with many of us unwilling to sacrifice the health and well-being of our children and families, everyone is struggling with the idea of sending them back to school. Many parents are really struggling with sending their kids to kindergarten for their first year of school with so many unknown factors.
When my son started kindergarten in August 2019, I had no idea what the year would hold. After two years of part-time preschool, how would he adjust to a full day? Would he enjoy school and learn anything? How would he feel with a new teacher and a whole new group of kids? Would he be safe and happy? These are all normal and valid questions to have. I can’t imagine thinking on top of that, “could my son bring home a deadly virus?” It’s too much to bear, honestly.
I talked to a bunch of parents via Facebook about whether or not they felt safe or comfortable sending their kids to kindergarten this fall. Much like everything else in the conversations about COVID, they’re conflicted on what to do.
David Clover, a parent in Michigan who is high risk, explained that he was homeschooling his daughter for preschool. The plan was that she’d be attending kindergarten, but that’s changed due to his medical risk. He and his partner have decided to continue homeschooling.
“I have extremely mixed feelings about that, but I feel like what she needs is hands on learning opportunities; she doesn’t enjoy video calls and finds screen learning stressful,” he says. “I had to sit down and say ‘wow, the costs to my child of remaining isolated are enormous and unfair.’ Is that better or worse than the trauma of losing a parent?” he adds.
Right now, parents are facing an impossible decision. We know that if we send our kids to the school building, it’s almost a guarantee they’re going to bring home COVID. Anyone who’s ever been around a kindergartener knows that they can’t adhere to the rules of social distancing. Especially when they’re in a group of their peers. A lot of these kids haven’t been around kids their own age in months. If they go to school, they’re going to be so damn excited to be around other kids, they’re going to forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And who can blame them?
Talking to Mother Jones, NYU’s School of Global Public Health professor of social and behavioral sciences David Abramson explained that kids being back in school will “will serve as potential vectors back into the community.” He also acknowledges that “it’s almost impossible to imagine not opening schools given all that is at stake. And so it’s like a devil’s bargain.”
Adults can’t even manage to adhere to social distancing rules. There’s no way we can expect five- and six-year-olds to stay six feet away from each other all day. Sure, we may be able to get them to keep a mask on to take a walk or run errands. But will those little ones really be able to keep masks on for seven hours a day if they went to full-day school? Especially if they have P.E. class or recess? Once my six-year-old gets his mask sweaty, he’s whining about taking it off.
“I’m terrified about sending my youngest,” explains LD Fisher, a mom in California. “There’s no way he can keep a mask on all day and not touch his face or come within six feet of classmates. He’s still learning how to wipe his bottom and wash his hands properly! Kindergartners are inherently unsanitary.”
When it comes to kids and COVID, there are still a lot of unknowns out there. As of right now, the evidence shows that kids are at a lower risk, and typically develop milder symptoms than adults. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still susceptible — and able to contribute to spread among faculty and family members at home. “There are a number of papers that show that children can become infected,” Dr. Steven Zeichner, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine explained to Mother Jones. “Some of them are symptomatic,” but he adds, “a large number are asymptomatic.”
A study published in Science way back in April approximated that closing schools could not only delay the pandemic, but flatten the curve by 40 to 60 percent. Subsequent modeling studies offer conflicting information. They’re suggesting that closing schools doesn’t have much of an effect on slowing down viral transmission.
Parents of kindergarten kids are really struggling with the best thing to do. For most kids, kindergarten is their first year in “real” school. But it’s not mandatory in every state, and some states have birthday cutoffs which can affect when your kid would start. Because of these factors, they have the most flexibility about if it’s even worth starting kindergarten right now. Maybe they can just wait another year, or skip it altogether. “Redshirting,” or delaying entrance to kindergarten, has been a common practice among parents even before the pandemic.
“If we move to NY this summer, my son will start kindergarten,” explains Shana W., a mom currently living in Maryland. “I’m worried about how they’ll teach kids to read virtually, but at the same time, having a younger kindergartener (he’ll turn five in October), this might be a good time to start, because the expectations are lower.”
The thing is, no one can come to a general consensus on what’s the right thing to do. At the end of May 2020, The New York Times asked 500 epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists about returning to normal activities. School was one of them and the responses on return times vary. Overall, 70 percent said they’d send their kids to childcare (including school) between summer and fall. Many (40 percent) said they’d feel more comfortable during fall. But of course, there are still plenty of factors at play there too. And we have to keep in mind one of the most important factors: this survey was done before many states eased restrictions and U.S. cases began to experience record-setting resurgence.
While we don’t know a lot, one thing that’s clear is that there is no right or wrong answer. There’s a lot of risk assessment and waiting to see what changes. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to keep our kids home if we feel it necessary. It seems many people are finding alternate ways to do kindergarten; it may not be ideal, but it’s the best way to keep our kids (and their teachers) safe.