What this doctor wants parents to know before making the back-to-school decision

Parents have questions and need expert answers.

back to school covid

Parenting during a global pandemic is stressful, especially when we are constantly bombarded with information from every angle—and some of that information is not expert-driven or backed by science. It can be hard for parents to wade through all the misinformation and conflicting reports to find the information they really need.

That's why Motherly talked with John Torres, MD, Medical Correspondent for NBC News & MSNBC. Dr. Torres is clearing up misconceptions, breaking down the latest research on kids and COVID and giving parents the information we need as we prepare for a new school year.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Motherly: A growing body of evidence suggests that children are less likely to spread coronavirus, but many parents—a large percentage—are still just very concerned about sending children back to school. What do you say to parents who are concerned about school re-entry plans and feeling a lot of anxiety right now?

Dr. Torres: It's extremely understandable to be concerned about sending your kids back to school. For months we've been talking about not going out, not socializing, not going in big groups—and now we're talking about sending them to schools where socializing in big groups is typically what we remember them doing. School's going to be different when kids go back now.


What we do know, as you said, is that children are less likely to get coronavirus, spread coronavirus and have complications from coronavirus. But that doesn't mean they can't get it, can't spread it or don't have complications. So safety measures need to be put in place. That means that it's on the parents to understand what their school is doing to keep their child safe.

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Talk to the school system: Schools are putting out a lot of information. Review that information to make sure that you're feeling confident—as confident as you can be, because you're never going to be 100% confident—that they are going to be safe while they're at school, or as safe as possible.

What I also tell parents is, anytime you leave your bubble, be it your house or your family location, you're increasing the risk of getting coronavirus. Leaving the house to go to school, you certainly increase your risk of getting coronavirus, but you have to look at what we call a risk-benefit analysis: Is the benefit of kids going to school bigger than the risk of them contracting coronavirus? Has the school done enough to minimize that risk while at the same time, maximizing the benefit of them getting to school?

That's the important thing to understand: Not only what the school is doing to keep the child safe while they go to school, while they're in school and as they leave school, but also, what they're doing in case somebody does get coronavirus in the school, which is probably going to happen in a lot of different areas. What measures are in place to make sure that either the classroom gets shut down or the school gets shut down? Is the school planning whatever's needed to be done to isolate that person who has coronavirus and the contacts that have been around them, and make sure that they're quarantined while keeping everybody else safe?

Motherly: You mentioned it's likely that there is going to be coronavirus in schools. How likely is it that it will be a teacher who gets it rather than a student, and what should parents be doing to keep their kids' teachers safe?

Dr. Torres: Most likely, it's going to be the adults that get it and display it because adults show symptoms more often than children do. Children can be asymptomatic at a higher rate than adults, but you want to make sure that you talk to your child about why it's so important to follow school guidelines: "Hey, one of the things you need to remember is that not only are you protecting yourself and your friends when you go to school, but you also protect your teacher. You're protecting the custodian. You're protecting the person in the lunchroom. You're protecting those people as well. Make sure that you're doing those measures that your school wants you to do. Wearing masks, social distancing, lots of hand-washing."

More than likely those measures are going to vary at every school. The biggest thing with going back to school right now—and the biggest probably complaint about going back to school right now—is school systems and public health organizations need to be extremely creative and extremely flexible. What happens in Provo, Utah is going to be different than what happens in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which is different than what happens in El Paso, Texas. In a hotspot area with increased numbers of cases, they may need to be more diligent about asking, "do we need to roll back school a little bit?"

Talk to your child: "Hey, you might go to school or school might need to be rolled back a little bit. You might not be there with all your friends because you're going Monday/Wednesday and some friends are going Tuesday/Thursday. You might be in a pod where you're with 10 students and your teacher all day long, and never see your friends who are in a different pod, and that's okay for now. Just make sure that if your teacher is saying you need to do something to protect yourself and us from coronavirus, that you're actually doing that."

Motherly: In some school districts kids are going to be asked to wear masks—not in every school, but in some. Parents may be a little confused here if kids are not the ones that are typically transmitting the virus. Why is it so important for children over the age of 2 to be wearing masks when they do leave that bubble of home?

Dr. Torres: Just because kids aren't as likely to have coronavirus or aren't as likely to spread coronavirus doesn't mean that they're not going to get it or spread it. They still have the potential of getting coronavirus—if they do, they're less likely to show symptoms of coronavirus so we might not even know it and they can spread it. A new study showed that children under the age of 5 actually have more virus in their nose than older children or adults, but the thinking is that they don't spread it as much as adults because their lungs are smaller—so they're not breathing as heavily as adults do—and they're not as tall as we are, so they're not necessarily at shoulder level with adults or breathing directly into our faces.

That having been said doesn't mean they can't spread it. That's why it's important that children do wear masks if the school system or the public health department's saying you should be wearing masks.

I was talking to a bunch of pediatricians and public health experts a few weeks ago and I asked them a question: "Would you send your child to school?" Of the five I talked to, all five universally without hesitation said, "Yes, I'd send my child to school, but I want to make sure that the school system is safe, and that they put in place measures to keep kids safe. I'm confident that they will."

At the same time I talked with them about masks. What they said is, for older children masks make sense, whereas for younger children it's a little more difficult. For example—and this would be something good to talk to your young child about—they said that young children would come back from the playground and all of a sudden they have different masks on, because the children swapped masks! You can imagine a child would be like, "I like your Spiderman mask." "Well, I like your princess mask. Let's switch." Switching is one of the worst things you can do with your mask. So talk to your child to about this if they have to wear a mask: Tell them nobody else can use it, and you can't use anybody else's. Just try to really get them to understand that.

Motherly: There were a lot of parental concerns regarding issues with the inaccurate testing numbers in Florida—it made it look like there was a really large percentage of children who were testing positive for COVID. What is going on with that testing and is it a reflection of wider issues with the testing of children? Should parents be worried about what happened in Florida or is there more to understand here?

Dr. Torres: Parents should not be worried or panicking about what happened in Florida because we're still trying to get a good understanding of exactly how those tests were reported and how those tests were done. It doesn't sound like they were reported or done on the same basis as other regions. We're not entirely sure that those numbers are as accurate as they could be. The other issue is, Florida is a hotspot and being a hotspot, you're going to have higher numbers. There is some truth to the fact that the more you test, the more numbers you're going to find and so you're seeing that, but also there are probably more actual cases as well, because the numbers in general are higher. If you're in a hotspot area, you have different concerns than if you're not.

That same thing goes with going back to schools. Before you go back to school and before you get things organized at your school system, you need to have the coronavirus cases in your community under control, because otherwise, you risk the chance of bringing it back to the school system and spreading it from there. In some of these hotspot areas, you're going to see that schools aren't going to open, at least initially, and you're seeing a lot of places delaying school by at least a few weeks.

Don't get too concerned about what you're hearing in Florida about positive test rates among kids, because we don't know how accurate that information is, and we know that there are more cases in the general population of hotspot areas, which means more children have coronavirus as well.

Motherly: If we are looking at a year or a year and a half before this is under control, that seems like a long time for parents who have already been stressed and scared and anxious for months now. We know that mothers' mental health in particular is being disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic. What do you want to say to mothers who are feeling like their mental health is in a downturn? How should we be taking care of ourselves right now?

Dr. Torres: The most important thing is to realize that this is a tough, unprecedented situation. You're in the midst of a pandemic, hearing scary news constantly about deaths and cases and even how it's affecting children in certain situations. Combine that with the fact that our children are home and you're having to take care of them for the last four months and probably for another month or so. Combine that with the fact that the job market is unstable and we're not really sure what the economy is going to do. There's a lot on that plate right now. Just understand that number one, you're not alone in this. There's a lot of people going through similar situations.

It's okay to feel anxiety and concern about what's going on and what might be going on in the future, but part of addressing it is asking for help. That's hard to do because you know everyone is going through something similar, but at the same time, asking for help is how you'll find connections and support.

Also—and this is probably one of the hardest things to do in the midst of all this—but even getting 15 minutes of me-time can help. If you have somebody—a partner, a husband, a significant other, a wife—whatever partner you have, try saying "Hey, I'll give you 15 minutes at three o'clock, and I need to take 15 minutes at six o'clock. I just need to walk around the house for a bit. I just need to go out in the yard and just get a breath of fresh air without having any worries or taking the kids, while I let you take care of it."

Finally, just to try to remember this will end. Science is working very hard on a vaccine and working very hard on treatments, and the vaccine should hopefully be here by the end of the year, beginning of next year. Once that vaccine's here, then they'll start distributing it to people and we'll get through this. That's probably the biggest message overall: We are going to get through this. We are going to get back to at least a new normal. Might not be the old normal, but a new normal. It's going to take a little bit of time.

Just keep following the advice of the health professionals, and keep following the advice of the public health officials. Use science as your base for what you need to do and how you need to do it, and understand that that science might change from time to time because this is a new virus.

We're going to get through it. We're going to get through it as a community. We're going to get through it as families, as a nation and as a world. But we're going to get through it to a new normal.

For more on the reopening of the American education system, watch "Pandemic: Back to School" anchored by Craig Melvin every Monday through Labor Day at 11 am ET on MSNBC. Viewers can submit their own questions via Twitter with #MSNBCAnswers or sent to [email protected].

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