Is It Safe to Send My Kids Back to School?

What counts as "safe" is relative, and it changes for each family.

At the beginning of the calendar year, most families wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling their kids out of school. But more than 12 million COVID-19 cases later, the safety of schools in the U.S. is hardly a guarantee. Though data from the first few months of fall classes suggests K-12 schools don’t pose a huge coronavirus risk, no school will be able to credibly claim to keep kids safe from the virus until there’s both a vaccine and herd immunity, which experts predict is months off at the earliest.

There are real health risks associated with sending the kids back to school — risks that extend beyond children who are immunocompromised and otherwise at high risk for COVID-19 complications. Asymptomatic kids can spread the virus to vulnerable members of their community. “There may be increased risk for other members of society if you return to activity such as normal instruction without some protection,” says Susan Coffin, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, adding that there are also risks to not returning to school. “Group learning and participatory activity is a huge part of appropriate developmental learning.”

Health and developmental concerns are real, but so are economic concerns and concerns surrounding the mental wellbeing of parents. Holding down a job while directing at-home learning is impossible for many parents and difficult to the point of maddening for many others.

Not all parents get to choose how their kid attends school this fall, but if you have a choice, it can be a massive headache. To help you decide, let’s map out the risks.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the School Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, homeschooling, hybrid learning, and in-person learning. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public health, child development, child psychology, and family economics.

A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as returning to school.

For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.

The Four Factors

If you put the decision to go back to school on a risk matrix, there are four factors to assess.

  • Public health: The risk that the action has on public health.

    • For example, schools have the potential to be outbreak centers. That potential is higher if masks aren’t required, if students and teachers aren’t social distancing, and if the school has poor ventilation.

  • Development: The risk the action has on delaying your child’s education and social/mental development.

    • For example, school and afterschool programs are going to be best not only for teaching your kid but also for giving them the chance to socialize.

  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s psychology. 

    • For example, a parent’s stress often impacts their child. If you’re worried about your kid’s health going back to school, they’re probably going to worry too.

  • Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.

    • For example, homeschooling means that at least one parent won’t be able to work full-time, dropping your family income.

The Three Scenarios

Remote Learning

Total Score = 27

  • If anyone in your household is at high risk for severe COVID-19, staying home is the best option for personal and public health.

  • Remote learning means parents seldom get alone time away from their kids. This can take a toll on the whole family’s mental health.

  • It’s nearly impossible to get a full work day in while homeschooling, which can mean less income and greater financial stress.

  • Without peers to interact with in person, children miss out on social play crucial to their development.

Hybrid Schedule

Total Score = 19

  • This option — spending half the week in the classroom and half at home doing remote learning — is only available to some families.

  • Riskier than homeschooling to public health, hybrid schedules are safer than full-time classes in person, but only so long as kids stay home on off days.

  • Hybrid school schedules give kids at least some of the social play they need for appropriate development and parents at least some days of focused work.

In-Person School

Total Score = 18

  • In-person school is best in areas with low community transmission of the coronavirus and for households that don’t include anyone at high risk for severe COVID-19.

  • A full school day gives parents more time to get their work done or go into the office if needed. It gives children more social play and a more conducive learning environment.

  • Although parents may stress over their children’s health, they will be relieved to have a break from 24/7 parenting.

The Bottom Line:

When we mapped these three scenarios, remote learning was the riskiest choice with a score of 27. Hybrid schooling was only slightly riskier than in-person schooling with scores of 19 and 18, respectively. However, every family is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of a choice for you.

To get a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, your child falling behind in school for the “development” factor. For at-home learning, the risk of falling behind could be “Likely” or “Very Likely” depending on your circumstances. If your child does fall behind, the consequences may be of medium-low severity, so the factor would have a severity rating of “2” or “3.” Repeat this analysis for each factor.

For the “public health” factor, the chance of your child getting and spreading COVID-19 at school is probably “Very Unlikely” or “Unlikely,” depending on where you live. If your child does get or transmit the disease, the severity of the outcome may be “2” or “3.”

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should send the kids back to school. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.