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“Should I send my child back to school?” is a question I get frequently these days. As a pediatrician who is in peak back-to-school physical season, I can’t remember a recent visit with a school-aged child where this topic didn’t come up. Unfortunately, there is no single right answer to this question.

The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges the “fundamental role of schools in providing academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health therapy” for children. School is so much more than academics! The AAP has advocated for policy considerations that start with the goal of having students physically back in school. A vast majority of the children and parents I talk to share that common goal.

So how do we safely send our children back to school in the setting of COVID-19 community spread?  The honest answer to this is, “we don’t know.”  There is no way to eliminate the risk of this virus to students and staff, but there are things that can be done to mitigate the risk.  Governor Walz’s “Safe Learning Plan” starts with consideration of the local data and county COVID-19 case rates. When children are able to physically return to school, tools for virus mitigation include smaller class sizes and cohorting, physical distancing, use of cloth face coverings or masks, and enhanced hand hygiene and environmental cleaning.  Children should be regularly screened for symptoms of illness and be kept home if they have a fever (temp of 100.4F or higher) or exposure to someone with known COVID-19.  Schools need to have a plan in place in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.

Additionally, we know that this issue doesn’t impact all children equally.  There are certain medical conditions that place children at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.  The underlying health of the child needs to be considered when weighing the risks versus benefits of return to school.  There will be some children unable to wear a face covering due to underlying health or developmental issues. Many children receive academic accommodations, therapy services, and special education supports in school that are difficult to replicate in the home setting. Consideration also needs to be given to the resources, support, and access to technology that children have in their homes that impacts their ability to participate in distance learning.

These are unprecedented times, and we are learning as we go. Let’s continue to work together to achieve our shared goal of getting our children back to school as soon as it is safely possible!

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