A Moment with Dr. Moore

August 25, 2021

Weighing Risks and Rewards

To mask or not to mask my child. That’s one of the questions parents are asking as fall approaches. Back to school will be different this year and folks aren’t comfortable with change. The rules seem to be constantly shifting, especially with the rise of the highly infectious Delta variant. After over a year, the pandemic is still at the front of parents’ minds as they debate whether to put their youngsters back in child care.

I know many parents are nervous and need a lot of reassurance. For example, Alison Manor, mom to a three-year-old girl, is dithering over whether to send her daughter to preschool. “At this point, she really hasn’t interacted with her peers since she was only one-and-a-half when the lockdown started,” Manor said. “We were so excited about preschool, but now with Delta it’s become really hard to make that decision.”

The rise in cases of COVID is making moms like Amanda Hermann feel hopeless. She has three children who range from two to eleven and is eager to send them to school. “I was ready at the end of spring and like ‘okay, this is great,’” she recalls. “Now I’m becoming anxious again though everybody is enrolled. There are people coming to our school board meeting saying they don’t want the children wearing masks,” and “it’s scary, especially when you hear how serious cases are surging in the South.”

All signs are that COVID won’t go away anytime soon. In the meanwhile, there are things early childhood programs can do to make parents feel more secure. They can send out videos of their building and its new safety features. They can tell parents of returning children how daily routines might differ, so the parents can prepare children for changes. And they can be open about what children would experience in the building.

Families had a lot of questions at Patterson Elementary, which serves Washington, DC, children from preschool age to fifth grade. “They wanted to know our policy on masks,” said Principal Virginia Thomas. “Do students need to be tested before school starts? What happens if a teacher tests positive for the virus?” And when families had concerns, “they got back to us ASAP,” said one family member who did opt to enroll her children in the program. The school’s rapid response helped build trust.

Families are also more likely to put faith in preschools whose staff have gotten the COVID vaccine, according to a new, national survey from Upfront, a financial resource that helps parents price child care. More than three-quarters of parents want mandatory vaccine for licensed child care staff. And it’s the right thing to do, said the CDA Advisory Committee that I convened this year. “Everyone 12 and older,” the committee advised, “should get the vaccine as soon as they possibly can.”

And teachers might find themselves feeling better after getting their shots. Ask Greta Pringle, a Washington, DC, preschool teacher who was aghast when she received an in-person teaching assignment this year. She said she had been wiping groceries for months and “had tremendous fear.” But once she received her first shot, she began to feel much safer. “It’s a journey,” Pringle explained. “You really have to go through that journey.”

The end is not in sight, and this fall it may be a real trial for teachers working with children who’ve been stressed out by the pandemic. Millions of young children have missed out on a key stage of social growth, and parents are seeing more behavior problems than they did in pre-pandemic days. The increase in clinginess, crying spells and distraction has led the experts to issue a strong call for children to return to school. “I’d rather take the small risk of my child getting COVID than my child’s emotional well-being suffering because she can’t make friends or have a connection with her teacher,” said Dr. Neeraj Sood, director of the COVID Initiative at the University of Southern California.

“Safely returning to in-person instruction in fall 2021 is a priority,” according to the CDC. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued this statement. “Children absolutely need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well-being. We know that some children are really suffering without the support of in-person classroom experiences or adequate technology at home.”

So, as parents think this month about sending their children back to preschool, they should carefully weigh the pros and cons. Granted, there are risks, but there’s no question the rewards are great, as the experts agree. Parents need the facts to make an informed decision. And they need to know that our educators are doing all they can to keep young children safe.


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