HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. – As COVID-19 cases spike across the country, parents are struggling with whether or not to send their children back to school this fall. There are tools that can help make that decision though, like state-specific modeling data.
Courtney Noffsinger of Hendersonville, Tennessee, is among the many parents grappling with this kind of anxiety.
The mother of two has spent most of the blistering hot summer social distancing from other family members and friends. She and her husband even recently purchased an RV to go on camping trips, so they wouldn't run the risk of catching COVID-19 from crowded vacation destinations.
For Noffsinger, the idea of sending her kids back to school where they’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other students and potentially exposed to the virus is daunting to say the least.
“Parenting is already hard, parenting in the middle of a pandemic has been extremely difficult,” Noffsinger said as she watched her daughter scroll through TikTok.
Noffsinger’s two kids haven't been to school since March and are both anxious to get back into the classroom. Her 14-year-old son Keagan is entering high school and her 11-year-old daughter Presley is entering middle school. While both children have asked their parents to return to in-person learning, Noffsinger is nervous about sending her kids back to school, especially given her daughter’s underlying asthma.
“As their parents, we want to give them what they want, but we’re fearful, especially when the data keeps changing,” she said.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country, school districts are being faced with the reality of trying to provide education to the nation’s young people in the midst of the pandemic. While some of the country's largest districts have decided the entire fall semester will be virtual, many other districts are turning to hybrid models where students will attend school at least one or two days of school a week.
COVID-19 has created a complex paradox for both parents and educators. They’re weighing the health and safety of students against the prospect of losing valuable learning and social interactions that can't be replicated online.
But both parents and teachers are fearful that sending kids back into school environments will give the virus exactly want it wants, crowds of people to spread across.
“Parents don’t like to hear me say it, but we will be undertaking a whole series of experiments across this country and we will have to see how those experiments turn out and be prepared to change what we’re doing to keep up with the virus,” said Doctor Williams Schaffner, who serves as a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University.
As COVID-19 cases continue to spike across a large swath of the country, Schaffner says parents need to be vigilant at home when it comes to instilling proper protections like wearing a mask and washing their hands. The more normalized those behaviors are at home, he says, the more likely they’ll be emulated in the classroom. And the less likely it is that the virus will spread.
“Model the importance of wearing a mask, practice social distancing. If you do that in your family already, it’ll be easier for your child to understand what’s happening in school,” he said.
So, where can parents turn for guidance about whether to send their kids back to school?
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created the COVID-19 Projection Machine, which gives parents an interactive map to work with. As you scroll over each state, you can see current case numbers, hospitalization rates and most importantly, the positivity rate for your state. Health experts say once a state’s positivity rate crosses 5%, parents and school districts should take note.
Since the virus is not under control in the United States, Schaffner says parents, students and educators who are returning to in-person learning will need to be flexible as the year progresses.
“If there’s an increase in your community and an increase related to the school itself, that school system will have to figure out if there’s a trigger point there, where they call a time out and everyone stays home and the learning becomes virtual,” Schaffner said.
As for Noffsinger, she has decided to let both of her children return to school on a hybrid schedule. It’s a decision she’s told them comes with a great deal of responsibility on their part as well.
“We’re fearful for their health, but also understand the importance of their education,” she said.