June 26, 2020

Parents and children have made it through many challenging months of quarantine.

Now the thought on most parents’ minds is the decision about school enrollment in the fall. The only thing that is certain during COVID-19 living is that we all must accept risk as an unwelcome specter. This fact may be the primary consideration when deciding whether or not to enroll children in school or daycare. With this point front and center, the following thoughts may guide planning. 

First, parents must come to terms with the limitations imposed by their jobs.

Is it best or even possible to continue to work from home? Can co-parents and other family members pitch in to care for the kids if they are home-learning full time or part-time? Next, consider the burden of children on professional productivity, wages, and stress. The distraction of pets and kids at home takes its toll on our ability to do good work. Remember, stressed parents mean stressed, irritable kids.

Consideration of the child’s needs related to social-emotional functioning is also relevant. How has he or she functioned doing the quarantine? While I believe children will not be permanently damaged, the cost of distance learning on children's mental health and academic progress should be acknowledged.

Next, consider the degree of health risk that is acceptable for the family. 

The effect of COVID exposure on children is still unclear.  While young children seem to be at lower risk of serious illness when exposed to the virus, they should be monitored for Kawasaki-like disease. We do know that children can spread the virus to others even if they do not have symptoms. The risk the child poses to adults in the home (and their circle) should be carefully evaluated.

Parents should consider the various options that the school offers. For instance, some schools may allow partial attendance at school with some home-school days.  This option would be riskier than staying home but safer than being in school all day every day. Again a decision about risk tolerance must be made.

Soul searching about trust in school personnel and the quality of the school is essential.

Were leadership, organization, and cleanliness at the school acceptable before COVID came to town? Parents will depend on clear communication and behind the scenes adherence to safety regulations. Again, trust comes into focus. Will janitorial staff be adequate to maintain a clean environment, or will teachers be responsible? Most schools will need to increase the number of assistants, so teachers have no concern about staying home if they become ill. 

The structure of classrooms and schedules are also worthy of investigation.

Children should not share supplies, they should sit at forward-facing desks spaced appropriately, and there must be reasonable rules about mask-wearing (this will vary based on the age of the child, but all adults should wear them). Outdoor learning should be considered, but it may be tricky to maintain social distancing during recess. Cafeteria dining should be avoided, and there must be clear rules for hand washing. These are essential safety measures but only represent a shortlist of recommended school policies.

Parents of infants must explore not only cleanliness but staff and attendee patterns at daycare. High caregiver and baby turn-over may increase risk. The baby-to-caregiver ratio should be low (see: childcare.gov for guidelines).

A recent New York Times poll of epidemiologists showed that 40% of these professionals plan to enroll their child in school come fall. Local data related to the virus will undoubtedly guide local choices. However, for parents, deciding whether to enroll a child in school this fall is a personal one. Taking time to make a sound decision for the family and child, along with what the school is offering, will ultimately lead to a plan that feels right.


Dr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed developmental psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years, and is the author of Nola Family’s award-winning “Learning Years” column. To learn more about Dr. Blackwell, click here. patblackwellphd.com

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