How to Go Back to School Safely during COVID-19

Deciding how to send kids back to class during the COVID-19 pandemic has created anxiety for school administrators, communities, parents, and students. As with so many situations we’re navigating during the pandemic, there are often many competing factors to consider as we decide how to move forward.

When we consider safety from the perspective of being least likely to increase transmission of COVID-19 overall, the safest way to continue educating our children is through remote learning. 

But we also have to consider how kids learn, whether they have adults at home who can dedicate hours a day to their child’s education, and whether every family has the resources to do remote learning well.

In my opinion, the decision on how kids return to class should be decided on a community-by-community basis, balancing the population’s needs with the level of COVID-19 spread within the district.

Some areas of Massachusetts have stable or shrinking numbers of COVID-19 cases and could theoretically safely start in-person instruction full-time. But in communities that are seeing growing numbers of cases and hospitalizations, they may want to start with remote classes, then transition to a hybrid model if the situation improves.

Here’s some advice for everyone involved in back to school planning.

Prioritize infection prevention at home

If kids and teachers are heading back to school in-person, even only a few days a week, they need to prioritize infection prevention at home. 

Why at home, when the kids going back to school is the issue?

While kids don’t get as sick from COVID-19 as adults, they can carry huge amounts of the virus back from school, which can pose a serious health risk to elderly or vulnerable family members.

Families need to remember what I call the CIPB: COVID Infection Prevention Bundle, which includes masks, hand hygiene, and physical space. Yes, even at home.

Watch this video to learn more about why the CIPB is so critical at this moment.

It’s a good idea to get in the habit of regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, such as light switches, doorknobs, and remote controls, if you’re not already.

And, of course, all of this is important in an in-person classroom too.

Practice good infection prevention habits now

Just as August is the time to start transitioning the kids to their school year sleep schedule, now is also the time to kids used to wearing a mask for extended periods. Make it fun by letting them pick out a mask with a favorite character on it, or let them decorate their own. 

It’s also important to get your child used to washing his or her hands when coming back inside, and keeping their distance from vulnerable family members, which is difficult for both your child and the rest of the family.

Don’t panic about your child’s health

Data shows that healthy children, especially young children, do not get as sick from COVID-19 as adults do. For an otherwise healthy child, the risk of severe illness is low—although they are not immune. Worry more about keeping the adult members of your household safe. 

Don’t expect perfection

Nobody is perfect when it comes to mask etiquette. I have to take mask breaks, even from the cloth masks I wear outside of the clinical setting. Schedule mask breaks for kids and teachers during the school day. Be patient with your child, and with yourself. 

Know when to respond to changes

I am hopeful that if we all use the COVID Infection Prevention Bundle as we should, we can contain the virus and safely expand in-person instruction in the months ahead here in Massachusetts.

But remember: We only have choices when we have control of this virus.

State leaders and school administrators need to have thresholds in mind for both expanding in-school learning, and going fully remote again if community spread and hospitalizations increase as they have in states like Florida.

Heading back to class in 2020 is something none of us has had to navigate before. Let’s hope what we learned during the first surge this spring helps us all stay safe this fall.

Learn more about South Shore Health's response to COVID-19.