The Back to School Decision Tree Is Here For Worried Parents

·6 min read

In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in a pandemic, economic depression, and civic unrest and your most basic choices become stress-inducing nightmares. There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are ways to assess and respond to risk.

A few months ago, most families wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling their kids out of school. But nearly two million COVID-19 cases later, the safety of schools is hardly a guarantee. No school will be able to credibly claim to keep kids safe from coronavirus until there’s both a vaccine and herd immunity, which experts predict is months if not years off As such, there are real health risks associated with sending back to school — risks that extend beyond those children toward the immunocompromised and otherwise at-risk. “There may be increased risk for other members of society if you return to activity such as normal instruction without some protection,” says Susan Coffin, clinical director for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, adding that there are also risks to not returning to school. “Group learning and participatory activity is a huge part of appropriate developmental learning.”

Of course, health isn’t the only concern. Holding down a job while taking care of the kids is, for many parents, impossible and, for many others, difficult to the point of maddening. Health and developmental concerns are real, but so are economic concerns and concerns surrounding the wellbeing of parents. It’s a complex web of factors. Let’s map it out.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the School Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the actions you’re assessing — in this case, homeschooling, sending your kid to school and afterschool care, or enrolling them in school only. Then, identify the potential consequences of those actions. The consequences we will consider are to public health, child development, child psychology, and family economics.

The matrices compare the severity of a consequence (from insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of an action. Of course, these risk matrices require a bit of guesswork. COVID-19 risk varies from community to community. The consequences in the matrix fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can take the action without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a consequence falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward. Different families will have different risk tolerances. Wealth families can take on economic risk. Healthy families can take on some risk of exposure. These matrices should be read in light of personal considerations, not as generalized risk maps.

Different actions will have different mixes of red, yellow, and green consequences. No choice is perfect. The total score listed below the matrix is a number to help you get a sense of the total risk associated with the choice.

    • Public health: The COVID-19 risk from 0 (insignificant) to 5 (catastrophic) that the action has on public health.

      • For example, school and afterschool programs increase risk of spreading COVID-19 because afterschool programs are often more crowded and may include close-contact sports.

    • Development: The risk the action has on delaying your child’s education and social/mental development.

      • For example, school and afterschool programs are going to be best not only for teaching your kid but also for giving them more time for socialization.

    • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s psychology.

      • For example, a parent’s stress and psychology often impacts their child. So if you’re worried about your kid’s health going back to school, they’re probably going to worry too.

    • Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.

      • For example, homeschooling means that one parent won’t be able to work full-time, dropping the income coming into your household.

Mapping the Risk:

Total Score = 27

The family that decides to homeschool in the Fall realizes it may not be best for their mental health. But mom or dad is already a stay-at-home parent, so the economics risks aren’t as great for them as they are for other families. On the flip side, the homeschooled child may have parents that work full-time, but they also live with their diabetic grandpa and want to keep him safe. In either case, teacher and student are going to get sick of each other fast, if they aren’t already.

Total Score = 20

The kid who masks up for in-person classes has parents that can’t quit their jobs, but one is able to leave early for pick-up when the final bell rings. The family is worried about COVID-19, but they have also discussed the importance of hand-washing and advocated for safety measures in their school. Though fear of the virus is stressful, they’re glad to return to some semblance of normalcy — and they’re glad their kid won’t be falling behind in school.

Total Score = 12

The kid who attends classes and sticks around for afterschool activities has parents that need their full-time jobs to keep the family finances secure. Though they worry about their kid’s and community’s health, they can take some relief that their kid is getting the schooling and socialization they need.

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should send the kids back to school. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.

Ready to go back to school?

Before you do so, ask some questions of the leaders in your school and advocate for the safest environment possible before school is back in session.

Questions to Ask Your School:

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