Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I am not sending my kids back to school


sanjay gupta kids

As summer is quickly coming to a close, in a normal year parents, teachers, and students would be preparing to go back to school. This is 2020, however, and is of course not a normal year. Perhaps one of the biggest debates in many households is whether or not parents should be sending their kids back to the classroom. Dr. Sanjay Gupta and his family are no exception. This is his opinion.

Dr. Gupta: Why He’s Not Sending His Kids Back to School

Being a doctor during this global crisis, Dr. Gupta has been asked many times over the last few weeks: Will he be sending his three daughters back to school in the fall?

His family has decided no, but it was not an easy decision to make. This is not the decision that his pre-teen and teenage daughters wanted. (1)

“My girls want to go back to school, and they are placing enormous pressure on us parents to make it so. They miss their friends, the social structure and the immersion in humanity that kids need and crave at this age.” he wrote in an article on CNN. (1)

The decision to keep his kids home wasn’t one made lightly, or without a lot of research. First, Dr. Gupta actually visited his children’s school. He walked around the building and spoke with the school head about the protocol that they were putting in place to keep students and teachers safe. These include (1):

  • Mandatory mask-wearing
  • Hand hygiene stations
  • Physical distancing plans
  • Frequent disinfection of surfaces
  • Outdoor classes when possible
  • No mass gatherings or assemblies
  • Students will eat lunch in classrooms, not the cafeteria
  • Creative use of space in libraries, gyms, and cafeterias to have the necessary square footage required to maintain safe distancing guidelines

The Gupta children’s school also tested all students and faculty last week before students are set to return next. Of course, any student or staff member with a positive test will not be allowed.

Despite all of these measures, he has still decided that his children are better off learning from home. (1)

The Research

For starters, none of the measures put in place matter if the kids themselves don’t adhere to them when they aren’t under direct supervision. Places like the bus, the hallways, and even still in the classroom – teachers only have so much control. (1)

The “assurance testing” is helpful, however, given the number of false negatives, it doesn’t mean that an infected person won’t enter the school without knowing it. On top of that, depending on how early they take the test, even someone who tests negative could contract the virus before returning to school. (1)

“…while someone may test negative today, there is no guarantee they won’t test positive for the virus tomorrow.” (1)

The largest pediatric study done in China found (1):

  • 90% of children with COVID-19 develop mild or moderate symptoms
  • 4% are asymptomatic (without symptoms)
  • 6% become severely or critically ill

Though the kids may be lower risk for developing a serious case of the disease, what about the adults that they come in contact with, such as their parents, bus drivers, and teachers? A study from South Korea found that households with kids aged 10 to 19 of COVID among household contacts. Kids under the age of 10 weren’t studied widely enough. (1) Dr. Gupta recalls how when his daughters were little if one of them developed a cold the entire household was almost guaranteed to get it, no matter what they did. 

“…any parent will tell you how easily little kids spread viruses in their own homes.” (1)

What About the Teachers?

Dr. Gupta quotes a recent analysis done that found that nearly a quarter of teachers in the United States are at a higher risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19 either due to age or pre-existing conditions. There are teachers even writing out their wills as part of their back-to-school prep, just in case. (1)

Finally, in most school districts including the one his family is in, the numbers simply aren’t there yet. According to the Fulton County School System, cases per 100,000 people need to be fewer than 100 for the previous 14 consecutive days in order for the schools to return to full-time, face-to-face instruction. The county’s current rate is 316.2. (1)

Other schools, daycares, and summer camps that have already reopened have experienced problems with virus transmission, and there really is no compelling evidence that most areas are ready for students to be physically back in school. (1)

It’s Different for Everyone

As Dr. Gupta states, it’s not so simple for everyone, nor is the decision up to all parents. Some schools are starting the year off virtually, others, like Gupta’s, are given the choice, and other schools are fully open. (1)

He also recognizes that he is in a privileged position that he can keep his daughters at home. For many, affordable childcare, lunches, and access to technology to have virtual schools are major challenges. For many of these reasons, parents have to send their kids back, whether they want to or not. (1)

“None of this is easy, and some families may arrive at a different conclusion after looking at the same data. In the age of Covid-19, it seems we are all forced to become amateur epidemiologists, while also being the best parents we can be.” he writes. (1)

Teachers are of course aware of the struggles parents are facing at this time and are doing their best to think outside the box in order to make the return to school engaging, fun, and above all, safe. One example is this kindergarten teacher who turned her students’ socially distanced desks into coronavirus-protecting trucks. Others are turning to what are called learning pods. 

Learning Pods

“Learning Pods” are the new thing that seems to be floating around in the news, on the radio, on social media, and in parent circles. Though you may see the term “pod” used for the small groups schools are dividing their students into or the “micro-schools” that companies have started for children of wealthier families, what a learning pod really is, is an unofficial learning collective organized by parents. Sometimes these pods may have the help of a professional tutor or teacher. (2)

These tutor or teacher-operated pods, however, are usually financially out-of-reach for many children. What the parent-run pods really are is shared childcare: Each parent or set of parents takes turns each day of the week staying home and supervising the children. The kids can then do their virtual learning together. Not only does this provide comradery for the kids, but they can also help each other if they don’t understand something. Most importantly for these less-advantaged families, it provides free childcare and allows for the parents to go to work most days of the week. (2)

There are so many ways to set up learning pods. Because every school and district is doing things differently, how groups of parents choose to set up pods will vary quite a lot.

Virtual Pods

Virtual pods have also been brought up. This style is essentially the same as the online learning kids had in the spring, except instead of the large groups of 20+ students, they are in smaller groups of five or six. This is more effective and more engaging for the kids, while still being able to safely work from home. Of course, though the virtual pods don’t require hiring a tutor or teacher, they don’t solve the problems of access to technology and food. (2)

Equitable Pods

In some areas, parents have posted out for creating “equitable pods”. This means that when organizing a pod, parents should reach out to parents of different races and economic classes of their own. The goal is to provide access to individualized education for children of all backgrounds, as well as establish friendships between children and families who may not otherwise have met. (2)

While this sounds lovely, social justice writer and educator Shayla Griffin says that when parents think about their child being in the home of someone they don’t know, in a lower-class neighborhood that they don’t know, and who’s parents may be essential workers and therefore have a higher chance of being exposed to the virus, they will probably say no. (2)

One woman in Washington has even started a GoFundMe page to subsidize learning pods for lower-income students in Washington. (3)

The Bottom Line

As it always seems to, the onus for what back-to-school will look like for children this year is falling largely on the parents. Whichever path each family chooses, we will just have to wait and see what happens and hope that our children and their families are safe.

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