I’m a Microbiologist and a Mom. This Is Why I’m Keeping My Kids Home This Fall.

Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER

By Jess Badger-Rotenberg

July 10, 2020

Given the realities of this crisis, we simply cannot meet the needs of everyone. So our highest priority must be supporting working parents and vulnerable children.

If you had hoped that July was going to provide some much needed clarity about the beginning of the school year, and instead find yourself still uncertain about whether or not to send your children back to school, you are not alone. As a mother of two young boys, a part of me is still holding out hope that the threat of coronavirus will dissipate in the next few weeks, allowing the school year to begin without restrictions.

Reality, however, says otherwise. 

As a microbiologist, I understand that the epidemiological data needs to demonstrate decreases in the number of cases, hospitalizations, and the test positivity rate for schools to open safely—at a bare minimum. Currently, all three numbers are on the rise in North Carolina, and many other states. As a parent, I understand that in-person learning is critical for the well-being of my children, a point stressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics last week. 

So what do I do when the school system chooses to open anyway and I have to weigh that against keeping my kids home?

Parents all over the country are grappling with this question. Because the federal government has decided to let each one of the approximately 13,500 school districts nationwide decide for themselves how best to proceed, the factors parents are having to consider may be wildly different depending on their geographic area.

Tentatively, my North Carolina school system is likely to offer a partial in-person option this fall along with an alternative for distance learning full-time. If we chose the in-person option, the students will rotate being in school for one week and at home for two weeks. This reduces the number of people in the building at any one time, which reduces the spread of COVID, according to the CDC’s guidance for schools.

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Realistically though, many younger students will be in childcare settings during those two-week breaks because their parents have to work. Their exposure to a second group of children will bring an additional layer of risk as opposed to having the same kids together in the classroom each day. For older students, additional hours spent working or with friends during the day will do the same. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have scientific studies on any of this yet, so we really don’t know how to open schools safely during a pandemic. 

As for my family, I have decided distance education is the best bet for my 1st and 2nd graders. We’re just not willing to put ourselves at risk as coronavirus cases spike across the state and country.

In some respects, I have a lot of privilege in making this decision because I’m not working full time outside the home. My income is not dependent on schools being in session.

However, I am also disabled due to myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), which means I’m not in a position to be a full-time teacher for my children either. While I don’t feel distance education is as effective as classroom learning, my children do not have learning disabilities, so support services or IEPs are not considerations like they might be for other families. 

Keeping my kids home for a year is far better for them than having a mother who gets sicker.

One of the most important factors for me to consider is my own health. If I get COVID, it’s likely to be a difficult recovery and I’m afraid of lasting effects. My ME was triggered by an improper immune response to the Epstein-Barr virus. Doctors say some COVID patients are experiencing long-term effects similar to ME. 

Keeping my kids home for a year is far better for them than having a mother who gets sicker.

In recent weeks, we have seen numerous articles indicating that children seem less likely to be infected with COVID-19 and less likely to pass it than adults. That’s encouraging, but no one knows how to predict what will happen when 56 million students begin attending school in August. 

What we do know, however, is that testimony at the Israeli parliament this week from members of the nation’s  public-health service pointed to the swift reopening of schools as the source for soaring infections. According to The Daily Beast, Dr. Udi Kliner said “schools—not restaurants or gyms—turned out to be the country’s worst mega-infectors.” Dr. Siegal Sadetzki, Israel’s leading epidemiologist, echoed those comments when she resigned as director of the Israeli Health Ministry’s Public Health Services this week.

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We also know that there are many adults in the school building as well, and their health and well-being should be a prominent point in this conversation. Schools can’t open if teachers refuse to show up because they are worried about their health. A recent USA Today poll determined that as many as 1 in 5 teachers may not return to the classroom this fall.

It is clear that we need functioning schools to allow our society to function. Even without a pandemic, though, teachers already spend their own money to purchase necessary classroom supplies, books, and basic necessities for students. They have also expressed concern—and rightfully so—that appropriate safety policies, ample PPE, and adequate COVID-19 testing will not be in place by August. These are especially crucial steps to have in place to protect teachers if we are asking them to work during a pandemic with rising infection rates. 

“Opening” schools can’t be the goal. Given the realities of this crisis, we simply cannot meet the needs of everyone. So our highest priority must be supporting working parents and vulnerable children.

Even if I’m more comfortable with the county’s finalized plan in August and North Carolina’s mask requirement results in declining infection rates, I feel strongly that I need to keep my children home. Just because I can doesn’t mean that I want to, though. 

I think it’s important that we look at this through a “community benefit” lens. We need to protect teachers by asking fewer of them to show up physically, which means more children need to be learning remotely. The classroom needs to be available for students whose parents need to work outside the home and children who have education needs that require in-person support. 

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Part of me even wonders if supporting families needs to be a higher priority than education itself right now, given how impossible it seems for schools to effectively educate under these circumstances.

I know my children will suffer and be disappointed by missing out on classroom education this year. I also know that I will struggle with the added responsibility of being their primary educator. What provides me comfort right now, though, is knowing it’s one small thing we can do to help our community and protect our health.



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