Many people are currently holding their breath and scrambling to understand how and what school will look this coming fall. School districts are desperately trying to meet the needs of conflicting interests weighing safety, economic impacts, and meeting varying needs for children. I certainly do not envy the school districts and educational institutions trying to make these difficult decisions.  Along with schools deciding on the options they will offer and protocols they will take, parents are also trying to decide whether to send their children to school this fall. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, schools do so much more than just educate. In addition to educational success, school is the bedrock for many children’s mental health, is where many children can rely on getting meals and emotional support, and is where children with special needs receive services. As parents, I think many of us are struggling to know how to proceed. Many districts have announced plans doing away with any hybrid model (10 children at a time, rotating days, shifts, etc.) and leaving the two choices of either full-time in-person learning or full-time remote learning. Therefore, most families are facing the decision of whether to send their children to school in the fall.

We should first acknowledge that there is privilege in this decision. Many families out there do not have the choice and if they want to remain employed and will simply need to send their children to school based on the childcare function it provides. Other families are choosing between mental health and physical health knowing the important role socialization in school plays on socio-emotional development. Some children learn well remotely, while others deeply struggle. 

Like many tough decisions, we can get lost in the choices and the “what ifs.” Like other tough decisions, there is no one “right” or “good” answer about whether it is best to send children to school or to engage in remote learning, especially when we consider the drastically vast array of variables we face in lumping all families together. There is simply no right answer for all. Each family gets to make the choice right for them.

Any time we are faced with tough choices, we must first throw out the notion that there is one, correct choice. This is almost never the case. In fact, it is usually true that multiple paths with many options exist in any decision. In the case of school this fall, there are risks and considerations either way. For families with children with special needs, this decision is even more loaded. If parents are going to do the full-time remote option, then parents must face taking more time off work or sacrificing work altogether in order for their children to stay home. They must face the mental health consequences that come with being overstretched, working remotely and parenting, or parenting full-time while also playing the role of teachers to their children. If parents are considering the in-person learning option, then then they are dealing with likely significantly increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19. For families who have been social distancing since March, attending school would be the highest risk thing they have done thus far. Families who are at a higher risk of complications with COVID-19, such as having autoimmune diseases, pre existing conditions, or otherwise being in a higher risk category such as pregnancy in the family, might not be able to risk sending their children to school. 

Some things to consider for your own family:

  • Listen to your gut about what feels best for your own family regardless of what others around you choose. You get to set your boundaries based solely on what is right for you.
  • Be open to your decision changing with new information. Your choice might look different due to case numbers in your area at any given time, changes in family circumstances such a pregnancy or job loss, or how things seem to go in your community when your school re-opens.
  • Seek as much information as you can when making your decision (i.e. specific plans at your school, learning styles of your children and how they did with remote learning the past spring, the most up-to-date knowledge regarding what scientists and doctors know about the COVID-19 virus, etc.).
  • Try to be less black and white about your decisions- Is there a way to change work schedules to aid flexibility in being home? Might you consider changing your choice based on case numbers and how things are in your school?

All in all, this decision is excruciatingly difficult due to the many variables surrounding the problem and the conflicting interests of health. Mental health and financial safety might be at odds with physical safety. Every family will have to select the best option for them as frankly, all options will come at a cost.