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When will children go back to school? That depends on where you live

The goalpost is moving again. But there's reason for hope.

when will school start again
@darby via Twenty20

As the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the U.S., extended school closures are unavoidable for most communities. And when schools do reopen for the 2020-2021 school year, students and teachers will face a markedly different reality.


Governors in almost all states moved swiftly in March and April to close schools as a crucial link in the chain of social distancing practices that slow the transmission of the virus. The good news (and it is very good news) is that social distancing measures can help slow the rate of infection. The bad news is...well, take your pick: Learning gaps, loneliness and entrenched inequality, to say nothing of the increased burdens on teachers and on parents.

So when will schools reopen, and when will our kids go back to class?

President Trump plans to pressure governors to open schools in September

Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty

Coronavirus has parents and teachers stressing about what will happen in September. There are a lot of unknowns right now but President Trump made one thing clear this week: He says he wants to see children back in their desks come fall.

On July 7 President Trump explained his administration is "very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools." This followed a tweet one day earlier in which he stated schools must open in the fall.

This isn't the first time President Trump has publicly supported a September re-entry. On Memorial Day weekend President Trump tweeted "schools in our country should be opened ASAP."

For months polls have shown Americans are divided on the issue of when to send kids back to the classrooms. In May, POLITICO/Morning Consult surveyed nearly 2,000 voters and found that while a third of voters think schools and childcare centers should reopen, 41% don't like the idea of classes resuming in September and 44% think day cares should remain closed.

A subsequent Politico/Morning Consult poll in late June found 54% of respondents said they are either "somewhat uncomfortable" or "very uncomfortable" with schools reopening in September. Nearly 60% say they're uncomfortable with day care facilities reopening.

Meanwhile, Motherly's third annual State of Motherhood survey found that not having childcare is a major source of stress for moms during this pandemic. A third (33%) of moms feel the hardest thing their kids are dealing with is no longer socializing with their friends. They are also most concerned with their family's mental health (31%) and nearly a quarter (23%) feel the hardest thing for their kids is a lack of structure/daily routine.

Pediatricians, too, are worried about kids' mental health and routines, as well as the physical consequences of keeping kids out of school. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is calling for schools to re-open this fall, citing school closures as "plac[ing] children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality" because "lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had previously urged caution when it came to reopening schools earlier in the pandemic but says he is now in favor of reopening schools, citing unintended consequences like those highlighted by the AAP. According to Fauci, school reentry is possible, but areas with high rates of COVID-19 will need to take extra precautions, such as alternating schedules to keep class sizes down.

"We should try the best as possible to get the children back to school and the schools open for the simple reason that the secondary, unintended consequences of having children not being able to go to school has ripple effects for the family that might have deleterious effects that really override the so-called safety benefits," Fauci said on a livestream on July 7.

Despite all this, recent polls show a surprising number of parents may not send kids back to school at all. In the end, it is parents who will decide whether or not in-person school will resume, for their own kids at least, come September.

75% of NYC parents want kids back in school in September

On July 3 New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his city is preparing to reopening schools in September, but later the same day, Gov. Cuomo's office said that's not a decision a mayor would make.

According to de Blasio, 75% of parents surveyed want to send their kids back to school in September. This is a much higher number than a survey of parents in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, where only two thirds of parents definitely plan to send kids back in the fall.

New Jersey and Connecticut have announced plans to reopen schools in the fall, as have Alabama, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In California, schools are being directed to provide "in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible" during the 2020-2021 school year as per Bill AB-77.

CDC releases guidelines for reopening schools

Parents and kids alike are wondering what it will be like when schools reopen this fall, and states are beginning to make plans for how to reopen schools with an emphasis on health and safety.

As with other aspects of the nationwide reopening, deciding what guidelines schools should meet in order to reopen safely has been left largely up to states.

Adding to the confusion, there are three versions of government school-reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in circulation: A detailed set of recommendations that was part of a draft document the White House rejected as being too restrictive, a series of "decision trees" for schools that were officially released on May 14, and then, finally, edited, detailed guidelines based on the CDC's earlier-drafted recommendations, which were quietly released on May 17.

Here's what the CDC's official guidelines for school reopenings recommend.

Before reopening:

  • Ensure that reopening is in line with local and state health guidelines.
  • Have practices and guidelines in place to protect students and staff who are especially at risk.
  • Be prepared to screen students and staff for symptoms and exposure history upon arrival.

Recommended health and safety practices to put in place:

  • Training staff and teachers to prevent transmission of the virus and to recognize signs of illness.
  • Promoting hand washing and healthy hygiene practices
  • "Intensifying" cleaning, disinfection and ventilation
  • Employees wearing cloth masks, "as feasible"
  • Maintaining social distancing by increasing spacing and creating small groups that don't intermix

The CDC decision tree for reopening schools also calls for ongoing monitoring and communication with parents and the local community.

In addition, the detailed CDC recommendations for schools include these suggestions for classrooms and students:

  • Cloth face coverings for staff, teachers and older students
  • Frequent hand-washing
  • Posting signs and messages about the importance of safe hygiene practices
  • Supplying the school with soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, no-touch trash cans and disinfecting wipes.
  • Daily deep cleaning and disinfection, especially of high-touch areas
  • Storing children's backpacks and other belongings separately
  • Avoiding sharing of books, supplies or other learning materials
  • Spacing desks 6 feet apart
  • Turning desks to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other)
  • Seating students on only one side of tables, spaced apart
  • Spreading out children on buses
  • Putting physical barriers and reminders in place, such as a plastic shield at the reception desk and floor markings showing safe distancing in halls, lines and other areas
  • Grouping students and staff into small, consistent clusters to minimize exposure, and restricting mixing of groups
  • Closing cafeterias and playgrounds
  • Having children bring their own breakfasts and lunches as feasible, or serving individually plated meals in classrooms
  • Virtual-only field trips and extracurricular activities

School districts may also put in place additional safety measures for reopening schools, such as alternating at-home and in-school instruction, updating the school calendar to include "catch-up" days and asking students and teachers to wear masks.

If there's a bright side to all this, it's that kids are natural learners who learn through play and exploration—and there's no shortage of cool stuff online to explore these days.

As a mom (and Motherly contributor) who has been teaching her kids at home during the complete nationwide lockdown in Italy wisely put it:

"You can take your child out of school, but nothing can take away your child's natural curiosity and their ability to learn in whatever environment they find themselves in."

[This post was originally published April 1. This developing story continues to be updated.]

<p> Siobhan Adcock is the Experts Editor at Motherly and the author of two novels about motherhood, <a href="https://www.siobhanadcock.com/" target="_blank">The Completionist</a> and <a href="https://www.siobhanadcock.com/the-barter" target="_blank">The Barter</a>. Her writing has also appeared in Romper, Bustle, Ms., McSweeney's, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Chicago Review of Books and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. </p>

Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

Minimize smoke exposure.

Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

Do your best to filter the air.

According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

"Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

"COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

Most importantly, don't panic.

In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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