The Viral Risk of a Return to School

 

Rita Kakati-Shah and her children, Reia and Raahi, who have recovered from COVID and now are in back in school.

After the pandemic forced school gates to shut down mid-March of 2020, fall felt far away. Working parents were suddenly juggling remote work, chores, and home-schooling. 

Starved of socialization and outdoor entertainment, children were going stir-crazy at home, staring all day into screens. Everybody knew this was bad, but only the experts guessed it would drag on for so long.

Many countries in Asia and Europe have reopened schools for in-person learning, but none have been as badly hit as the US. While everyone is aware the long break has interrupted education, the pandemic is far from over: The CDC reported that hospitalization rates in children, although low, are increasing. The UK recorded 121 COVID cases in schools in August, 30 of which were children. 

After months of enduring the gruelling, isolating reality of the new normal, American parents are faced with an unenviable decision: Should their children go back to school? 

Misha Vayner, a New York-based holistic health coach and mother of three, believes so. 

“Obviously, we want the environment to be safe enough to send them back, but it’s really important for the social and emotional health of the child to be (back in school),” she said. “Online learning. well… When you have kids aged two and four, they don’t want to sit up. That doesn’t do it for them. They want to play. They need the right atmosphere to learn. It’s almost impossible as a working parent to homeschool their kids 24/7… It’s a full-time job!”

Vayner knows intimately what Covid-19 can do to the body. Her mother, Aroon Shivdasani, fought a long and hard battle with Covid-19 and pneumonia for over two months, and was nursed back to health by Sacha, Vayner’s elder sister. Although virus free now, Shivdasani is now dealing with its ugly after-effects, including a mitral valve prolapse, lung congestion, fatigue, falling hair, memory loss, and more. Even so, she is confident it is time her grandkids, including Maya, Sacha’s 13-year old daughter, went back to school. 

“Governor Cuomo has done an amazing job of curtailing the virus in New York State and at the moment, I believe we are the safest state in the country,” she says. “We are fortunate that most New Yorkers are sensible and cooperative. I am confident that if Cuomo has allowed schools to open, he has checked all the parameters before allowing this to happen.” 

All three Vayner kids, aged seven, four two and a half, four, and seven, are back to school full time with no remote learning. Most of Vayner’s friends and social circle want to send their children back to school. “But whether they can or cannot depends on what their school district is doing,” she acknowledges. And in that area, the Vayners have lucked out. 

“We live in a very small community where there’s literally one elementary school,” adds Vayner. “They are able to cater to each and everybody’s needs. And they have been incredible with setting up the environment, standards, procedures and protocols such that it’s very safe. They’ve set up outdoor pavilions and repurposed indoor spaces…They’ve created an incredible learning environment that’s maybe even better than before.”

Fellow New Yorker Rita Kakati-Shah. CEO of the Uma Group, had her whole family testing positive for the coronavirus in March. It hit her husband, herself and her two children Reia and Raahi, aged 5 and 7. “The kids didn’t even notice,” she says. “The thing is with kids, the reason they’re so resilient to this is that they need to be getting sick all the time to build up their own immune systems. Right. If you stop kids from being exposed to germs, they’re going to get unhealthy.”

“It gives me confidence that my kids had the virus before,” says Kakati-Shah. “And they’re just craving that social interaction. They really missed that. The bottom line is, for my husband and I from a space perspective, a health perspective, a sanity perspective, and from a family perspective, the best decision for us was to send them back to school.”

Like Vayner and Kakati-Shah, the South Asian community overall, is ready for their children to go back to school in some form or the other. Some schools have provided the option of a hybrid model of attendance, where children go to school for only a few days a week, or a few hours a day. Entrepreneur Anu Sehgal, who runs The Culture Tree, chose that option for her children Vikram and Nikhil, aged 8 and 11. For the days that they don’t have school, she and her peers have made informal learning pods so the children don’t miss out on their social interaction. (Pods are where parents form a group and take turns supervising or homeschooling all the children at once.) “Most South Asians want to send their kids back to school,” says Sehgal, who works closely with the South Asian community. “The exception being if the main teacher is still remote.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that having kids back in school is best for their physical, mental, social, and emotional health. It is also, as most parents would agree, how children learn best. Currently, 0.3%-8.2% of all child COVID-19 cases have resulted in hospitalizations and 0%-0.2% of all child COVID-19 cases have ended in death. Compare that to the flu, which has seen record-high hospitalizations among young children this year. 

As Kakati-Shah says, children are resilient, and not just physically. To spend precious months of childhood cooped up, and in front of a screen with limited playtime though, would be depressing. Learning with teachers and frolicking with friends is crucial to a child’s development. Perhaps that is worth the risk — even if they have to do it with a mask on.