Dr Robert London

COVID-19, school reopenings, and safety: What should we tell parents?

Publish date: August 25, 2020

Parents, teachers, children, and adolescents are facing stress and anxiety as K-12 school districts across the country debate whether to return to in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As we approach the opening of schools, the stress and anxiety seem to be heightening.

Female child psychologist working with a little girl

According to Education Week, which is tracking the reopening plans of public schools across the United States, 21 of the 25 largest school districts are opting to implement remote learning only as their model. I would like to see all of those districts adopt that model until we understand more about this illness, and can prevent and treat it.

Yes, it’s true – I am a psychiatrist – not an infectious disease specialist. And I realize that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have taken nuanced positions on this issue. Their positions make it clear that it is within a child’s best interests – from an educational and social point of view – to attend school in person. Not only is the classroom experience important, but so is the socialization and the exercise. However, when I look at the science on children who have been exposed to the coronavirus, I worry.

For example, a study by Lael M. Yonker, MD, and associates on pediatric SARS-CoV-2 found that the children in days 0-2 of illness have far higher viral loads than adults who have been hospitalized for severe disease. “This study reveals that children may be a potential source of contagion in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in spite of milder disease or lack of symptoms, and immune dysregulation is implicated in severe post-infectious [multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children],” Dr. Yonker and associates wrote, referring to the illness associated with COVID-19 in children. Their study was published recently in the Journal of Pediatrics (2020 Aug 19. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.08.037).

In my state, where positivity rates are fairly low, Gov. Andrew Cuomo admitted in an interview recently that sending children to school in New York City is a “tricky proposition.” At this point, New York City public schools are scheduled to open in mid-September using a hybrid mixture of in-person and remote learning.

And look at what happened several weeks ago in Israel, where schools reopened after the virus was beaten back. At one high school in Jerusalem, just days after the reopening, the virus spread so prolifically to students, teachers, and relatives that the schools had to be closed again. Other countries should not follow Israel’s example, Eli Weizmann, who chairs the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on the pandemic, reportedly told the New York Times. “It was a major failure.”

But I must be honest: I was worried about children returning to school before I heard about the study by Dr. Yonker and associates, Gov. Cuomo’s comments, and what happened in Israel. So far, here in the Northeast, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, we have managed to get COVID-19 under control. Perhaps, in this part of the country, opening classroom education might be feasible – with close monitoring and proper precautions.

But COVID-19 has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans – more than 176,000 as of this writing. A new model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that COVID-19 could lead to more than 300,000 U.S. deaths by Dec. 1. Thankfully, the number of COVID-19–positive children who have died has been low. But they could still pass on the virus to adults.

To get a better understanding of COVID-19, I spoke with Sheryl L. Wulkan, MD, an internist and expert in personal protective equipment (PPE) who has consulted for numerous health care agencies about these issues. Dr. Wulkan said that, in some areas with low infection rates, school openings might be appropriate. However, she said, without proper testing and contact tracing, we are at a loss of controlling the spread.

What we should tell patients, family, and friends

From a psychiatric point of view, how should we advise our patients, family, and friends about sending their children back to school? Is on-site learning better than remote learning? It is. Do our children need the socialization that a school brings? Yes, they do.

Socialization and relating to peers are, indeed, important, but today’s children socialize in many ways beyond attending school – and they have peer friendships and interactions with electronic devices at their disposal.

Can remote learning cause social isolation – an isolation so profound that school is necessary not only for learning but the psyche as well? A meta-analysis of 80 studies that looked at the impact of social isolation and loneliness on adolescents and children who were previously healthy found that the young people “are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and probably anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends. This may increase as enforced isolation continues,” wrote Maria Elizabeth Loades, PhD, and associates (J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2020 Jun 3. S0890-8567[20]30337-3).

I am concerned about young people who experience anxiety and depression, and agree with Dr. Loades that we mental health professionals need to be ready to intervene early and provide preventive support. To do this, we should encourage parents to keep us informed about how their children are doing.

So my advice is that, in the absence of a vaccine and an effective treatment like we have for influenza – such as Tamiflu – and effective testing, such the saliva-based test developed by Yale University researchers, if I had school-aged children, I would continue to keep them home from school. Ultimately, however, parents must look at the science and make their decisions based on that. My children are adults with their own children, and only they can make informed decisions about which options are best for their families.

Interestingly, Sanjay Gupta, MD, the neurosurgeon who works as chief medical correspondent of CNN, recently discussed the thought process he and his wife used to determine whether their daughters would return to the classroom. After weighing many factors, including the viral spread in Fulton County, Ga., where they live, the Guptas decided that, at this time, the risks of allowing the girls to return to the classroom outweigh the benefits. “This was not an easy decision, but one that we believe best respects the science, decreases the risk of further spread, and follows the task force criteria,” wrote Dr. Gupta, who is affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta. “After 2 weeks, we will reassess.”

I understand that parents worry about the social and psychological costs of remote learning. And I can only imagine the difficulty of those who must balance homeschooling with working. And frankly, remote learning is not an option for all students. For those less fortunate, substantial governmental aid is important to assist these people and to keep them safe and on their feet until this pandemic is done. Also, those who were under the care of a psychiatrist should continue to receive care during the pandemic. We must be prepared to step in with interventions that can address the suffering that is inevitable, such as the use of targeted cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Public TV as an educational tool

Families with Internet access and those without it could benefit from using public television as a tool.

Dr. Robert T. London, a psychiatrist who practices in New York.

Dr. Robert T. London

I would advise educators and the entertainment industry to harness the wonder of TV to develop curricula that can be used to educate children. As we know, Sesame Street proved to be an effective early childhood intervention, particularly for boys (Am Econ J: Applied Economics. 2019;11[1]:318-50). I would like to see programming that goes beyond Sesame Street. Learning from watching this kind of programming would be no substitute for engaging with teachers in real, live classrooms, however.

Children and adolescents will be changed by learning remotely. They will miss their friends, teachers, and other staff members, but their lives will not be ruined. Mental health professionals should be prepared to intervene to address depression, anxiety, and other sequelae and problematic behaviors that could result from social isolation. Schools, businesses, and the economy will again flourish after we get the virus behind us but controlling and eliminating this pandemic need to come first. Let’s keep our children home – to the extent that we can – until we move beyond this pandemic.

Dr. London has been a practicing psychiatrist for 4 decades and a newspaper columnist for almost as long. He has a private practice in New York and is author of “Find Freedom Fast: Short-Term Therapy That Works” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). Dr. London has no conflicts of interest.