Parents and teachers must work together to protect students from COVID-19

"Whatever decision a family makes, it's the right decision for that family."

ByABC News
August 9, 2020, 2:00 PM

When it comes to safely reopening schools, there's valid cause for concern.

"We're a bit in uncharted territory, because we haven't had to reopen schools in the context of a pandemic," said Dr. Dan H. Barouch, director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.

Parents and teachers are asking what practical measures teachers and children can take to protect each other when in-person schooling resumes. Most experts agree they won't stumble upon a one-size-fits-all solution.

"It's very clear that virus transmission occurs in kids. Children can become sick from this virus -- not as frequently as adults, and certainly not as much as elderly individuals, but not all children have a benign course," cautioned Barouch.

Instructor Chablis Torres reads to children in a pre-school class, wearing masks at desks spaced apart per coronavirus guidelines, during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, Calif., July 9, 2020.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

"The first step needed for everyone to be safe this fall as kids return to school is for community transmission to be down significantly," said Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a primary care pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center, who encourages families to familiarize themselves with virus levels in their community.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that the nation's largest public school system will permit in-person classes only if the positivity rate remains below 3%.

The decision to go back to school from a safety standpoint is weighing heavily on families and teachers.

"There are competing forces ... adults need to go to work and children need to have social interaction," Barouch added.

Bracho-Sanchez also encourages families to consider individual family circumstances when sending kids back to school, adding, "Take into account who is living at home, the ages of people at home and potential underlying risk factors of family members."

"Whatever decision a family makes, it's the right decision for that family," she added. "We need to validate what each family is going through and validate the decisions they're arriving at."

When it comes to keeping kids and teachers safe, Bracho-Sanchez encourages families to look for layers of protection at school and get to know the strategies that schools are implementing throughout the school day.

It starts with how your kids are getting to school, whether they're walking or being dropped off, although "that's not feasible for every family," said Bracho-Sanchez. For families sending their kids on the bus it's best to "look for buses that are half-capacity with the windows open, where everyone is wearing masks."

Elementary school students wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 wait for classes to begin in Godley, Texas, Aug. 5, 2020.
Lm Otero/AP

Parents should be aware of mask policies at schools to help promote safety for children and teachers alike, as well as maintaining proper social distancing.

"Keep kids in smaller groups, so that if there is infection then there is a more limited number of exposures," Barouch said.

Experts emphasize that these small groups should be maintained inside classrooms, at outdoor recess and at after-school playdates. School lunches should be eaten at students' desks, not in crowded cafeterias.

Parents also must be vigilant about not sending a potentially sick child to school.

"It could be a little mild cough or runny nose, where in the past many parents would send their kids to school with these symptoms," Bracho-Sanchez said. "It's not going to be able to happen now. It will be a big cultural shift."

School policies supporting sick teachers are equally important, especially when it comes to providing paid leave, Bracho-Sanchez added.

Children in an elementary school class wear masks and sit at desks spaced apart, per coronavirus guidelines, during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park, Calif., July 9, 2020.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, it all comes down to a community's viral load.

"There are so many smart people, committed teachers, parents and public health experts who are working together to come up with all sorts of very smart strategies," Bracho-Sanchez continued, "but, unfortunately, if we don't set them up for success by first controlling the virus in the community, I don't think there are going to be enough layers that are going to keep this virus out of schools."

Molly Stout, M.D., a dermatology resident at Northwestern University in Chicago, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.