Reopening Schools Feels Like A Science Experiment

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Scientists discussing COVID-19 coronavirus diagram
Malte Mueller/Getty

Most of parenting involves not knowing what’s coming next. We know that. For example, I’m a mom of a newly minted middle schooler and I have no idea what I’m doing. He’s our oldest, so he’s the guinea pig. The first pancake. The one who teaches us how to parent, the one we consistently mess up on, and the one who helps us learn from those mistakes so we can do better with his siblings. So no, I don’t yet know what it means to be a “middle school parent” but I’ll learn as I go, making the best choices I can with the information I have at each turn.

We also don’t know what kind of baby we’re going to get when we see that first positive pregnancy test and feel that life grow inside of us, stretching us to limits we didn’t know existed. We don’t know if our child will have allergies or special needs or love to read or be a natural athlete. We don’t know if they’ll be tall or have dark hair or their grandmother’s eyes. And we don’t know if they’ll be stubborn or easy going or naturally organized or forget to wear underwear to school.

And we never know what uncertainty or safety hazard is around the next corner for our kids, which is why we prepare and take precautions. We don’t know when we’ll encounter an unsafe driving situation, so we always wear seat belts. We don’t know if our kids will be approached by a dangerous adult who wants to harm them, so we teach them about ‘tricky people’. We don’t know if they’ll remember to be safe when out with their friends, so we discuss possible scenarios to avoid and what they should do if they get feel unsafe.

And, in 2020, more than ever, we hear the phrase “we don’t know.” Only now we are hearing it from medical experts. And they’re talking about how COVID-19 affects kids in the long-term.

We don’t know what happens to children who’ve suffered from Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), which has been linked to COVID-19. Do their little bodies fully recover? Are there any long-term effects? Will their lungs, hearts, brains be forever altered?

We don’t actually know what happens when kids are thrown back into schools all over the U.S. and are exposed to large groups. At what rate will kids pass this around? How sick can kids get? What percentage of kids will become gravely ill? We don’t know the answers to these questions because schools have been shut down since March.


So when we think of COVID-19, like so many other aspects of parenthood, there is so much we don’t know. But, what we can do is take all the measures possible to protect them as we face such uncertainty.

That’s why my kids are going to school virtually for the time being. As a mom who works from home, I have the ability to keep them out of school since I am home all day. Although managing my day to day work-from-home schedule while overseeing their education is going to be hellacious Monday through Friday, I’m also not willing to have my kids serve as a science experiment. I’m not willing to let my kids be a part of this “let’s see what happens” game our country is playing by putting millions of kids back into enclosed, poorly ventilated buildings where COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact the students and staff inside.

The one thing we do know is that we literally have no idea what’s going to happen to large groups of kids as they are exposed to COVID-19. The world ripped kids from school abruptly last March and so many of us have kept our children isolated all spring and summer. We did we what were supposed to do protect them, but in doing so, children around the world were not exposed to this virus at nearly the rate adults were.

We’ve seen glimpses—summer camps, the first few districts around the nation who returned to school this month—and we’ve read the stories of case after case, positive tests, forced quarantine, and shutdowns after only a few days or weeks in session.

But what about when it’s kids nationwide? Can you imagine? I cannot. And my kids sure as hell won’t be a part of it.

Because here’s the brutal truth: as much as we don’t know, there are some things we do know. And, those things make me feel like my kids should stay home for now. For example, The New York Times reports that “based on current infection rates, more than 80 percent of Americans live in a county where at least one infected person would be expected to show up to a school of 500 students and staff in the first week, if school started today.”

80 percent. Today, before many schools have even opened yet.


Another New York Times article shares that “infected children have at least as much of the coronavirus in their noses and throats as infected adults,” and, perhaps even more shocking, “children younger than age 5 may host up to 100 times as much of the virus in the upper respiratory tract as adults.”

Equally alarming is this: A report from leading pediatric health groups found that more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July.

Or headlines like this one: “10 children die from mysterious illness after infection, exposure to COVID-19.”

So yeah, the whole “kids don’t get COVID” argument has been proven false.

Kids can get it. Kids can pass it around. And kids can die.

Reopening schools when this virus is still ravaging our country is experimental. So much will undoubtedly be learned, for better or worse, by dropping kids across the country—a country that very much does not have COVID-19 even remotely under control—into contagious petri dishes this fall.

My kids will be grumpy. They’ll hate virtual learning. They’ll continue to miss seeing their friends. And I’ll wish every day that this pandemic would be over, and they could go back to class. But one thing is for sure—the three humans I brought into this world are not going through those school doors yet.

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