Why I May Not Send My Son Back to School This Fall

Parents have some tough decisions when it comes to weighing the pros and cons of sending kids back to the classroom in the new school year.

After a rough spring of “distance learning,” otherwise known as “reasons why I never became a teacher,” school’s out for summer. But no sooner had the last day arrived in mid-June than I started wondering about what the fall would bring in the midst of COVID-19. Would schools reopen, and if so, what would they look like? Would they be safe? Would the regulations be stressful for my son? How much real learning could take place in a “pandemic school” environment?

On the other side of the coin, continuing with distance learning has drawbacks, too—not the least of which is that for many parents who work, having children attend school is a necessity. I’m very fortunate that as a freelance writer, I normally work from home and have options for how much work to take on and when to do it, which allows me more flexibility during the day. And distance learning did give me and my son a unique opportunity for family bonding. But what about my soon-to-be first grader’s socialization, and the educator-led learning that can really only happen in the classroom? At some point, Zoom just doesn’t cut it. I realized all the things homeschooling made us appreciate about teachers.

Still, I have major concerns about the traditional classroom during a pandemic—and I’m not alone. A USA Today/Ipsos poll from late May found that nearly 60 percent of parents were likely, including 30 percent who were very likely, to switch to at-home learning in the fall. But on the other hand, a Gallup poll from early June had nearly 60 percent of parents wanting full-time school, with 37 percent preferring a hybrid of in-person and at-home. Even a poll of 500 epidemiologists (the people who actually study how diseases spread) from the New York Times was split on personal opinions about sending kids back to class.

Our governor in New Jersey, where I live, just released guidelines for schools to reopen in the fall, but we still don’t know how those will actually be implemented by individual school districts. As I weigh the risks and benefits, here’s why I’m concerned about what a post-coronavirus life could look like in school.

Coronavirus isn’t done with us yet

I’ve heard some moms say they aren’t concerned with coronavirus anymore, and it’s true that in New Jersey we peaked early—albeit with devastating consequences. So it’s understandable that everyone just wants to “get back to normal” as restrictions are lifted this summer. But as I’ve been writing about coronavirus and hearing from doctors and medical experts, I don’t think “normal school” is realistic anytime soon. It’s estimated that even in hard-hit New York City, only 20 percent of people had been infected by the end of April, but around 60 percent may be needed to keep the rest of the population healthy, which is known as “herd immunity”—and it’s not even known if a person is fully immune after having COVID-19. As the country still deals with the first wave of the virus, the New York City area is already prepping for a second wave, which to top it off might be combined with the upcoming cold and flu season. Plus, there are so many unknowns about how the virus will play out now that we’ve reopened businesses, and all the coronavirus mistakes people will make this summer. Am I really willing to take chances with sending my son back too soon?

Kids are germ factories

Young children naturally do everything wrong when it comes to COVID rules: They touch their faces nonstop, don’t wash their hands well, and are all over each other when they play. Yet, kids don’t seem to be the main way coronavirus spreads, nor do they get very sick from it. Because of this, and because of the benefits of school particularly for children of lower socioeconomic status, even the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports the goal of having students physically present in school for fall. In looking at the evidence from Europe, a return to the classroom did not lead to a spike in cases. And some U.S. childcare centers that remained open for essential workers provide examples of how to creatively come up with ways to get kids to wash their hands better, such as rubbing a stamp on their skin until it comes off, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its scary complications. Yet, expecting young children to suddenly master personal hygiene seems unlikely. And although I know it’s unlikely that my six-year-old will become very ill from COVID-19, I am still worried about the rare but very serious effects of a strange multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children linked to the virus.

We’ll have to rethink our bubble

Even if my son doesn’t get very sick himself, I’m concerned about the risks to other members of our family, particularly my son’s grandparents, who live nearby and who we have only recently felt comfortable enough to create a precaution-free social bubble with. Even though I know that because children are less likely to have major symptoms, they may be less likely to spread it (fewer boogers means less sneezing of said boogers on others), it’s still hard to accept an increased level of risk to my parents’ health come fall. It’s true that my son enjoys, and even needs, socializing with his peers, but it might be at the expense of seeing family. After all, it may be possible to catch the virus through an asymptomatic spreader.

Masks will be worn

Research has shown cloth masks are absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19—they’re safe to wear all day and effective. But I’ve got some concerns with masks and young kids like my son in an elementary classroom. The AAP says children should be wearing them if (and it’s a big “if”) they can keep from touching their face. That’s a tall order for six-year-olds like my son—and for teachers, with masks becoming the new shoelaces as youngsters need help putting them back on all day long. But even if only teachers wear masks, something may be lost in children not being able to read their facial expressions, or even to hear teachers as clearly or as loudly when they speak. Masks produce muffled speech that sometimes even I have trouble understanding—and for my son, these effects will be even greater because he wears hearing aids due to hearing loss. Educators will have to work extra hard even when using their “teacher voice” to get kids to understand and pay attention.

Masks won’t be worn

At the same time, I’m also worried that students, and possibly teachers as well, won’t adhere to mask guidelines if they’re required to wear them. There’s no question that at first, masks can seem uncomfortable until you get used to having them on. But what if students or teachers just can’t—or worse, don’t want to—get the hang of it? Without full compliance at least most of the time, the measures that are supposed to keep our schools safe, or at least safer, won’t work. This means a bigger risk of my son, his classmates, or his school’s staff getting sick. And mask mishaps might not even be on purpose: These are the mistakes you’re probably making with face masks.

Play will be different

Schools will be dealing with logistical puzzles as to how to adhere to the six-feet-apart social distancing rule in classrooms—but kids will be the ones feeling its social-emotional impact. In Denmark, which was the first European country to reopen schools, one BBC report showed how only four kids were only allowed to play together during recess, and still had to keep their distance. “It’s been hard not to hug each other,” one seven-year-old said. Is it too much to ask of my son to stay away from his friends who he hasn’t seen in months? Yet for now, playing apart may be the only way for them to play together—these stories show what happens when you don’t social distance.

Interactive lessons will be a challenge

Social distancing won’t just affect my son’s ability to interact with his peers, but with his teachers, too. In fact, the AAP says the importance of adults physical distancing in schools is more important than students doing so, because adults may be more likely to fall ill and spread the disease. But how will social distancing impact teachers’ ability to conduct hands-on, interactive lessons with younger children? In addition, my son also gets some special services like speech therapy, which won’t be able to be conducted with a mask as he needs to see how the mouth forms sounds. Face shields or clear partitions may be an option, but none of this presents an ideal learning environment. Here are more things you may not see in schools after coronavirus.

Academic pressure might be too much

Even before the pandemic, American students were under intense pressure to perform, particularly with all the standardized testing assessments, which I was already worried about for my son. Now with kids likely lagging behind due to the unexpected distance learning in the spring, teachers might be put under even greater pressure to get the students to “catch up”—but at what cost to their mental health? The AAP notes that students might have a hard time re-adjusting to the school environment, particularly with all the unfamiliar changes, which could lead to difficulty concentrating and learning new information. Unrealistic academic expectations could become a source of further distress, the AAP says. Schools need to chill and recognize the needs of the whole child—not just their academics—but I’m concerned this won’t be the case in my son’s high-achieving school district. Even after the pandemic ends, this is one of the everyday things that could (and should) change forever.

Homeschooling is individualized

On the flip side, homeschooling presents an opportunity to completely individualize education for my son, in a controlled, supportive setting. This would be different from this spring’s school-implemented “distance learning” in that I would develop and direct the curriculum on my own, although there are plenty of resources to use. Rather than the worksheets my son rightly told me were “boring,” I’d be able to come up with more home activities he actually enjoys. Of course, homeschooling also has downsides, such as fewer opportunities for socialization and the small matter of me not being a trained educator. But, I am the best-trained person on the planet in my own child and his needs.

Kids are adaptable

The new school year will bring many challenges, but whatever I decide is right for my son’s education, I’m trying to remember that kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and we can help them build coping skills to adapt to changing circumstances. As I make this very personal decision, I would like to see schools offering parents choices for their children’s education based on how and where individual kids will learn best, and each parent’s comfort level and need for their kids to return to the classroom, including their family’s personal health circumstances and childcare needs. But whatever the school year brings, I believe my son, and all kids, will be able to grow and adjust to a “new normal”—with their teachers’ and parents’ support. After all, there are many extraordinary ways kids are giving us hope in the time of coronavirus.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.