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Back to school in 2020 – Deciding what’s best for your family

Many of us are looking toward the start of the 2020 school year with a mixed array of emotions. Trepidation about sending our little ones back to school with the rate of coronavirus infection increasing. Concerns over juggling the demands of our careers with the physical, mental, emotional, and educational needs of our children. Worries over what effect social distancing is having on the social emotional wellbeing of our kids. Guilt laden excitement over the potential of having a few hours a day of child-free time to accomplish necessary tasks or better yet time to reconnect with yourself, spouse or partner. Concerns over the health and safety of our keiki’s teachers and their ohanas.

With all of these thoughts and emotions it can be difficult to think objectively about what is the best decision for your family for the upcoming school year. No two families have the same set of benefits and risks with having your child physically back in school. Nor will each school be offering the same options because each school is unique in its ability to provide adequate distancing within their classrooms. Our daughter’s school just recently announced their model for the upcoming year and includes a full-day in-person program for the younger children (grades K-2) and a blended distance learning/in-person program for the older children (grades 3-6). The Hawaii State Department of Education has committed to providing a virtual-only option for families that decide not to have their children attend in-person classes. In-person learning options will likely be offered at most schools in Hawaii, but each family will need to decide what is best for their unique family dynamic.

Many factors go into deciding what is the best solution. Do you have family members living in your household that are high-risk? Does your child have an underlying medical condition that increases the risk of severe illness? Is your family financially able to provide care and schooling at home for your children? Does your job allow you the flexibility to work from home? Is your child’s social mental emotional health suffering from being isolated from their friends? Has your child struggled with the mostly online educational platforms without the one-on-one interactions crucial for younger children’s learning development?

Given that COVID-19 is caused by a novel (new) virus, there is so much that we are still learning every day. One preventative measure that has been identified as critical to the protection of vulnerable populations is social distancing. For many families in Hawaii, multi-generational family living is embraced with newborns to kupuna living under the same roof. This presents a challenge to ensuring the safety of kupuna when family members must leave the confines of their home for work and/or school, increasing the risk to their kupuna of exposure.

The most vulnerable populations include those over the age of 50 and individuals of any age with underlying medical conditions. The risk for severe illness from COVID-19 among adults increases with age, with older adults at highest risk. By understanding the factors that put you or a family member at an increased risk, you can make decisions about what kind of precautions to take in your daily life. People of any age with the following underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19: chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher), serious heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies), sickle cell disease, and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Children who are medically complex, who have neurologic, genetic, metabolic conditions, or who have congenital heart disease are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 than other children. These lists are not exhaustive and many additional medical conditions have been identified to potentially increase risk of severe illness.

I truly believe that each family must evaluate their unique circumstances when deciding what is best for their family for the upcoming school year. I encourage families to reach out to their health care providers to discuss the risks and benefits for their household when making their decision. I recommend parents sit down with their children and explain to them at their level what the COVID-19 pandemic is and why it is important that we are making these tough decisions and following these necessary precautions (i.e., increased hand washing, wearing of face masks, social distancing, etc.). In addition, for children attending in-person classes this fall, I advise parents to talk with your children about how things will likely be different in the classroom to help alleviate fears of the unknown and smooth their transition. We all want what is best for our kids, families, and communities. I hope this article helps provide your family with a framework on how to evaluate your options for the upcoming school year.

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