What Will Back to School Look Like During COVID-19?
‘Back to School’ this year means very different things depending on where you live and what your options are. With some U.S. school districts saying they will be fully open, others partially open, and the second largest school district in the country recently saying they will begin the year online only, plans are location-specific. Recently, we spoke with Anne Peters, MD about her thoughts on the re-opening of schools, whether COVID-19 is harmful for children, and how to be as safe as possible if you’re planning on sending your kids back to school this Fall.
Partial transcript below, edited for content and clarity
Beyond Type 1: For parents with T1D, and parents of kids with T1D—Can you share any thoughts you have on how people should be deciding whether or not to send their kids back to school?
Dr. Anne Peters: The problem with school is I don’t think you can completely control transmission in schools even if they have the kids apart from each other, and wearing masks, and not sharing lunches. I mean, they’re going to put all these rules into place. But, I think the people who have children are at increased risk of getting this if their children interact with other children. And, we’re already seeing it in the football players and people who are going back to college. They’re going and partying with each other, and they’re giving each other COVID. I mean, we can’t contain it if people don’t do the right things. And if you’re going to get kids together… they’re going to take off their mask, and they’re going to give it to each other.
Is it safer for kids to get COVID-19?
I used to think that was fine. But now there’s a real concern that the disease itself, even in asymptomatic people, causes inflammation in your lungs that you may not be aware of, they can see on X-Ray and on ultrasound. And that they think that that damage, even if you’re 20, or 15, or 10, whatever age you are when you get COVID, we don’t know if 20 years from now it might cause progressive lung disease. Or heart disease, because it’s an inflammatory state. So we don’t know what getting COVID now, even if you’re minimally symptomatic does to your future. So it strikes me as a good idea not to get this, no matter what age you are. But if you’re younger, you’re more likely to live. By and large you’re not going to die from it. But, like I’ve always said, it’s a disease I can’t predict. I can’t predict it now, and I sure as heck can’t predict what’s going to happen to people 20, 30 years from now. We know that the 1918 flu was associated with a really high increased risk of Parkinson’s, 40 years, 50 years later. So these illnesses that affect your whole body can cause harm later.
What advice would you give for those who are sending their kids back to school, in some cases out of necessity?
I would just have them wear a mask. And teach them about hand washing. Kids are trainable. A [friend] wanted me to write an essay about why his daughter should mind her habits, because she wasn’t doing the right things. And I wrote this essay, which started out, “I know it may seem impossible, but I was once your age. And there are things I’ve learned.” And it was basically this … I talked about that I’d had a tragedy of losing the person I loved the most when I was 29. And how that tragedy can ruin your life. And it was basically, “Don’t kill your father. Because you’ll never get over it.” The letter was basically “You are free, you can do whatever you want, but there’s a consequence. And your father could die if he gets this disease. Because he’s high risk. And it was this really heartfelt thing, which is it’s so easy not to give this to somebody.”
And so I think you don’t want to tell little kids that they could kill you. This was an intense example for older kids. But that I’ve certainly seen 6 year olds and up wash their hands. I mean, little, little kids like toddlers aren’t going to do it themselves. But certainly, you can teach kids to wash their hands and wear masks. And when they come home, the first thing you do is you take off their school clothes, and put on new clothes. And take off their shoes and have them take a shower or bath, and wash and wash. And I think that those things are helpful.
If they are coughing and sneezing, you’ve really got to be careful, if you touch them or deal with them, to wash your hands afterwards. So, I think that parents can help themselves not get it if their kid gets it. And I think that kids can help parents not get it. And, again, most people who have school age kids are younger. And the parents won’t be that burdened by being sick, even people with diabetes. But then anybody older than that, grandparents and things, are going to have to be really careful.
But I want people to live their lives. That’s my problem. So I know a lot of people who are going to homeschool. But that requires that a parent has the ability to pay attention.
Any thoughts on the psychosocial ramifications of missing school on the children and the social interaction that’s being missed out on?
Homeschooling has existed long before COVID, and there are ways to get that social interaction. It might be safer to have a bubble of friends. Six families where you knew the kids, and you knew that you had similar guidelines. None of this is foolproof. I think kids need other kids. I think you can create little pods that are safer. Safer. And then if somebody goes away, wait two weeks before interacting.
I do the Big Brother, Big Sister program, and I have this little sister, and she’s 17. And for reasons unclear to me, she’s decided to take off to drive to Texas to see her cousins. And she’s going with other cousins. And they’re driving and sleeping in their car, which seems to me very ill-advised. But what can I say? So I’m not going to see her for two weeks after she comes back. Because I love her, and I can text her, but for two weeks after she comes back from this road trip, I don’t want her… and that’s okay. I am making that choice. And I think everyone can make that choice. If the one kid from the playgroup, their kid goes to visit the grandparents and there’s some risk from travel, just don’t see them for two weeks. But it’s not two years, it’s two weeks.
So like I’ve always said, if we can control our environments, and our connections, then I think we can be okay. And if parents need to send their kids to school, they’re just going to need to send their kids to school. But really show your kids good behavior. And kids want to follow the rules, until they get to be adolescents, and then all bets are off. But younger kids might follow the rules.