Why CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta is keeping his kids home from school during the coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, seen here onstage during CNN Experience in March in New York City, has decided to keep his kids home from school amid the pandemic. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, seen here onstage in March in New York City, has decided to keep his kids home from school during the pandemic. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia)

As a parent, there is no question I agonize over more than this: Should I send my kids back to school in the fall during the coronavirus pandemic?

The school question dominates conversations with my husband, with my friends (in person, as we wear masks and stand 6 feet apart, and over endless text chains), and with work colleagues.

The anxiety is all-consuming. And everyone has an opinion. Judgment over whether to opt for all-virtual lessons, or form an expensive (and, some say, exclusionary) “pod,” or try in-person schooling is endless — and exhausting. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for any family.

Still, as most parents search for answers, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta announced Wednesday that his family had made a decision. After touring his three daughters’ school to check out its safety plans (which include a mask mandate and taking over gyms and the cafeteria to ensure social distancing), meeting with the administration and examining the infection rate where they live, in Georgia — a state that recently recorded its highest single-day coronavirus death toll — he is not going to send his kids to school in the fall, opting instead for all-virtual learning.

“It is a lot to consider, but in the minds of our family, the evidence is clear,” Gupta wrote in a much-discussed essay. “After considering all the objective criteria and assessing the situation in our own community, we have made the decision to keep our girls out of school for the time being. 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.”

I called Dr. Gupta to ask him about his choice, and hopefully gain more insight into my own. Speaking from his home as his three daughters logged on to their first day of remote schooling, Gupta detailed the questions all parents should be asking, how age plays a role and the three factors his family considered in their own decision making.

Powers: I’m eager to talk to you for your expertise, but also as a parent who is struggling with the decision about whether or not to send my young children to school. In your CNN article, you mentioned that your kids are a little bit older, preteens and teens. Would your decision have been different if they were younger?

Gupta: That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I do think the big difference is really this question: How much do younger children contribute to viral spread? And let me just preface this by saying that I don’t want to sound dogmatic because these are really hard decisions and, in some ways, sort of a merging of science and public health — and just family, emotional stuff.

We’ve thought that young kids don’t really spread the virus much, and what I’ve learned as I really dug into the data was that the truth is we just don’t know because young kids in particular have largely been at home since March. I mean, they’ve gone out here and there on playdates, but it’s not like all of the older kids or adults. So, as a result, even when you look at the large studies, they just haven’t had a lot of contacts, so we don’t know how much they spread.

But, having gone through raising young kids three times — every time a kid came home with a cold, everyone got sick. There’s no reason to believe this is different. I think your question might also be alluding to the idea that overall, virtual learning is easier for older kids and college kids versus younger kids. So that does play a role, and I would like to get everyone back to school as quickly as possible. But I think as long as I live in an area where the virus is continuing to spread, that’s what’s driving the decision.

If you lived in, say, New York City, like I do, would your decision be different?

I think so. I think it would be different. I mean, you have a positivity rate of 1 percent in New York City; you have lots more in the way of testing than we do in terms of what is needed. You’re meeting the testing demand and have a much better idea of what the viral spread is, which is the criteria by which you make these decisions, very objective criteria. You’ve got a downward trend of virus spread for 14 days in a row. You can move into the phase where you can safely reopen schools. We are just not there yet [in Georgia].

I think that [opening schools] would still hinge on some of the other things I mentioned in the [CNN] article. Obviously, I’d want to know that the school itself was following all the mandates in terms of masks, hand hygiene and physical distancing, and that it was truly going to be implementing the CDC recommendations, and that the community had passed through the gating criteria [to lower spread]. You know, I can’t say for sure, but I would be very much inclined to send them back to school. New York’s pretty unique. There are not a lot of places like New York in the country right now, right?

You wrote on CNN that you met the head of your children’s school and were able to ask questions. What are the questions parents should be asking schools and principals now?

I think, objectively: “Is there going to be a mandate on masks in the school?” In my state, there’s not a mask mandate. So schools are handling this on a case-by-case basis, and there are some schools that have been in the news lately that do not have mask mandates. I think that’s critical.

Just as an aside, there’s all this talk about the virus and obviously the remarkable impact it’s had on the world. But fundamentally, it’s just a small piece of genetic material that is fairly easily contained by a mask. It can’t jump that far and really doesn’t like to be outdoors. So if I could create a situation where my kids were in school and wearing a mask and absolutely being able to physically distance, which is probably the hardest ask, because we just need square footage. ... Our school started getting really creative with gym space and cafeteria space and outdoor classrooms when possible. [And I’d ask about] hand hygiene stations. Things like these are critical. If you can visit and see it in action, that is great. Not everyone can do that. The bigger point is: Are they going to take this seriously? Is the school doing this because they feel that they have to, or are they doing it because they understand the benefits of actually doing it? That’s what I really wanted to get a feel for as well. So the objective stuff is what I said [about masks, hand hygiene and distance]. And the subjective question is: Do they really take this seriously?

You mentioned masks are so important. My kids are 4 and 6. Do you think that little kids can actually wear masks all day in a classroom?

I think that’s tough. I think little kids over the age of 2 should be wearing masks, but I think it’s really hard for the little kids. Which is why, even though I know that virtual learning is going to be helpful, it can’t possibly be a substitute option, especially with younger kids. Despite that, I think I’d be more inclined, if the kids were younger, not to be sending them back to school.

What would be the age cutoff for you?

I don’t know. You know, I hadn’t really thought about a specific age, and I think kids are different. I would want to know that my kids were going to be diligent about masks. I’ve gone through [raising kids] three times, like I said, and I love all my kids, but some are just definitely more diligent … maybe 7 or 8 years old. My youngest, she’s one of those kids who, probably since she was 5, would just follow the rules and enforce the rules so everyone else has to. Then my kid who is the oldest, she will never follow the rules. In fact, she will do the opposite of what I ask.

My older kid is a rule follower too. But when we’re at the playground, I have to constantly say, “Pull up your mask! Don’t forget your mask!” There’s just a lot of reminding that has to take place, and it seems like it’s difficult to put that on teachers who are also teaching, to constantly remind kids. In your article, you mentioned being concerned for teachers’ health too.

Totally. If you buy into the idea, which I think the evidence is accumulating, that little kids can spread the virus and they’re going to, just because of their age and maturity levels, be less diligent about these basic hygienic practices. I totally understand the teachers’ concerns. You have teachers who are really worried. They love doing their job. But the idea that they can be vulnerable because of age or preexisting conditions, and that they could catch the virus just because kids are just being kids, is really frightening to them. I think about a quarter of teachers consider themselves vulnerable in some way because of age or health condition.

You’ve talked a little bit about this, but what do you think would be the priority in terms of getting kids back to school safely? Is it rapid testing? Contact tracing? You’d mentioned the universal mask mandate. A combination of all of the above?

It’s three things. Primarily, it is the amount of viral spread in the community — and it has to be coming down, not to be too minimalistic about it. But you probably can’t be opening indoor bars and opening schools at the same time. We know that indoor bars, where people are indoors and can’t wear a mask probably because they are eating and drinking, are places where the virus tends to spread rapidly. And that’s why in a lot of communities that opened early, especially indoor bars and restaurants, we saw a significant increase in spread. So bringing down the viral load in your community, and practically speaking, if you see a 14-day downward trend, that’s a pretty good sign. And you want positivity rates below 10 percent. That’s what the surgeon general says.

That’s interesting. In NYC, schools have said they’ll close if the rate creeps above 3 percent; it is currently 1 percent.

I don’t think there’s a magic number there, but 10 percent is according to the surgeon general. That basically means that if 90 out of every 100 people test negative, you’re probably doing enough testing. I use the analogy of fishing with a net. If you pull up a bunch of fish when you put your net down, you know there’s a lot of fish down there. That’s a high positivity rate. If you only catch one fish, I think there’s probably not a lot of fish down there, so there’s not many that you’re missing.

My kids were able to get tested before [the school year started]. That is a useful tool, but it’s not perfect by any means. You have false negatives, and the idea that you can test negative one day, and positive the next day. But it’s a really helpful tool, to find people who are carrying the virus and don’t know it. And I would put contact tracing into that same category as testing. And you want to go back into the community. You want to be sure that your hospitals are not at the level of occupancy where if you suddenly have a significant outbreak in schools — which can happen despite everyone’s best efforts — if all of the sudden, 300 kids become infected and 10 percent are really sick, can your hospital handle 30 kids? So you want to make sure you have enough capacity in hospitals. I would say those [measures are a priority], in addition to the obvious, like all those good CDC practices of hygiene, which schools have to abide by.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about kids being hospitalized, because we don’t know the long-term impact of [the coronavirus] on kids. You wrote a little bit about multi-inflammatory syndrome, and how many kids didn’t present with symptoms beforehand. Did the lack of knowledge of long-term effects play a significant role in your decision?

I think we can say that kids are still far less likely to get sick than adults, which was indicated out of the early data from Wuhan, and it’s sort of held up. I do think that it does happen. The risk is not zero, but I still think it’s very low in terms of kids getting really sick. I think 90 percent, according to the largest study, have mild or moderate symptoms. And when I mentioned the 30 people going to the hospital, you know that would not necessarily be all kids, just to be clear. That could be teachers, faculty, people in the community and outbreaks as a result of opening schools and how that can affect lots of people.

To answer your question, I worry about my kids getting sick, but I do believe that kids are far less likely than adults to get sick. I do think it’s always going to be in the back of every parent’s mind, as we are worried about a lot of things for our kids. But I think this decision was more predicated on making sure we’re not creating or worsening the trajectory of this pandemic.

That’s interesting to talk about personal responsibility. In New York, there’s lots of talk among parents that only kids of essential workers should be able to go back in person. Do you think there should be some sort of priority to getting kids back to school?

That’s an interesting point. I wouldn’t remove the criteria of all the other things I said, but, yes, we do know that there’s health care workers and essential workers. I think I read a statistic that said 30 to 40 percent of nurses are primary caregivers for their children as well. In order to get the country sort of running, you certainly need to get the kids back in school as quickly as possible. And if you’re going to create a tiered system, or a priority system, that would make sense. I also wouldn’t ignore the criteria: Are my kids potentially adding to the viral spread; are they going to make somebody else sick or hurt somebody?

Do you think there’s something that I should have asked, but I didn’t, when it comes to making these decisions as a parent?

These are tough decisions, and in many places in the country, these decisions have been made for parents. In 60 of the largest 160 school districts, they’re going to be starting with virtual school. For parents who have to make this decision, I really feel for you.

When we decided to essentially pull kids out of school in this country, it happened because governors and leaders and various communities said, “We are shutting down schools.” And so it was. The decision was made. That was it. You didn’t have a choice. And now, a lot of the choices are left up to the parents.

But I would remind people: There were roughly 5,000 people in the country who had been infected with the virus when we pulled kids out of school. And now we’re putting kids back in school, and there’s 5 million people who have been infected. So it’s gone up a thousandfold. So you have to ask yourself: If it made sense to pull kids out of school at 5,000 infections, is it different now? Structurally, is there a difference now with 1,000 times more infection, to put kids back in school? That’s what I would ask.

Can I ask your opinion on hybrid schooling, which is a blended learning model that some districts are doing, where kids spend a handful of days in school and learn remotely the rest of the time?

I’m not an expert on this, but I think it’s hard for the kids and the parents to do the hybrid model. First of all, if you’re working, it’s hard not to have some sort of pattern that you can tell your boss. I think it obviates all the benefits in terms of overall getting some of those essential workers and other people back to work. I think as a general rule, and this is based on conversations I’ve had with education leaders and people like Bill Gates, who invested heavily in education both online and brick and mortar, that while having virtual learning is playing an important role and probably will continue to play an important role, I think it’s very hard to be a substitute for in-person learning, especially for younger kids.

I have so many friends who are physicians and work in this world, and everyone’s confused. No one is like, “This is absolutely the right answer.” But I will say that I think you know we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I think the metaphor that people think of is a storm. If I said, “This is a hurricane,” I think you’d say, “There’s no way I’m leaving the house right now. It’s a hurricane outside.” And yet, because this is an unseen thing, invisible, we don’t feel the effects of it until much later — it’s much easier to ignore.

We will get through this. This isn’t forever. We could have excellent therapeutics and possibly even a vaccine within the next several months or a year. I think we have to figure it out, how we make the best choices for this time right now.

And I would say, and I think selfishly to some extent, there has been some real value in being home with the kids as well. I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of that. I mean, I want them in school, but I don’t want to look at this entire experience for the negative. This is what it is for a while; this is what makes the most sense scientifically and from a public health perspective. Now it’s the time to maximize the benefit of that.

Yes, but I think where it gets tricky is for parents who need to work, and can’t do a million things at once.

It’s challenging. And I feel it too. Even for us ... I’m Mr. Mom today, and I’ve got, you know, thousands of things to do. My kids are all home because today school started. My kids are a bit older, so I’m lucky, but yes, I totally feel that. And I hear it, and I consider myself lucky to be able to primarily be at home, but it’s challenging. It sucks, there’s no question about it. Just like a hurricane sucks, you know? But we will get through it. It’s a longer time frame than we typically think about storms. But in some ways, this is a viral storm that has been unleashed upon us and it will pass at some point. We will get through it; it’s just taking a lot longer than any of us would like.

And, as a parent, it’s frustrating to see bars open and Disney World open. And yet, here we have our kids not being able to get back to school.

We’ve got to be clear about our priorities in society. I’m not a preachy guy, I’m not dogmatic, but I think that’s basically becoming clear. And you see countries around the world that have returned to a pretty good sense of normalcy. Schools are open, people are out and about, and maybe not bars, but [they’re living] a real life. And we could be there too. And we will get here. It’s just taking longer than we would like.

Lindsay Powers is a Yahoo contributor and the author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting.


For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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