Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Should you send your kids back to school? A physician's guide

Dr. Geeta Nayyar, M.D. is a nationally recognized leader in healthcare information technology. Dr. Nayyar believes there are three factors for parents to consider when deciding whether school is safe for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Should you send your children back to school? First consider COVID-19's local impact and your state's response

No matter where you live or work, every parent of a school-age child is facing the same tough question: Should I send my kids back to school as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on? To gain a better understanding on how parents can be more informed about a safe return to school, I asked a practicing physician and one of my colleagues to provide practical and subject matter expert advice. 

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Dr. Geeta Nayyar, M.D., M.B.A., is a nationally recognized leader in healthcare information technology, a physician executive, a frequently sought-after public speaker, and an author with unique perspectives that bridge clinical medicine, business, communications, and digital health. Dr. Nayyar currently serves as executive medical director for Salesforce, connecting North American enterprise health systems to the technologies that empower hospitals, enhance the work of physicians, and improve patient care.

Previously, Dr. Nayyar served as the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Greenway Health. She has also held the role of Chief Healthcare and Innovation Officer (CHIO) for Femwell Group Health, Inc., one of the largest management services organizations in the state of Florida that includes about 700 physicians. Prior to this, Dr. Nayyar was Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) of AT&T, where she provided subject matter expertise, thought leadership, and strategic direction for the multinational company's health division. Here is what Dr. Nayyar had to say about the three factors to help you decide whether school is safe despite COVID-19.

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Dr. Geeta Nayyar, M.D., M.B.A., is a nationally recognized leader in healthcare information technology, a physician executive, a frequently sought-after public speaker, and an author with unique perspectives that bridge clinical medicine, business, communications, and digital health. Dr. Nayyar currently serves as executive medical director for Salesforce.

Across the country, many leaders of political parties are advocating for parents and school boards to answer, "Yes." After all, when kids return to class, their parents can turn their minds to work. And government leaders are hungry for economic gains, which have all but evaporated during the worst pandemic in generations.

But more is at stake than the nation's financial health. A school in Indiana, for instance, temporarily shut down after a student tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day back. When the Israeli government sent students back in May, an outbreak in Jerusalem led to hundreds of infections, far from the halls of the local high school. In Florida, a school that serves one of the authors' kids scrapped plans to provide options to parents. Instead, classes will go totally virtual, to guard against the state's heavy spread of COVID-19.

So, in the face of misinformation and a powerful contagion, parents have little certainty that their decision will be the right one. The truth is, any return to school is a measured risk. But by understanding your unique situation -- and sticking to what's proven to help, not harm -- you can make the right choice for your kid and community. Here are three things to consider before sending your child back to school.

1. Consider COVID-19's local impact and your state's response

In-person learning is probably a deal breaker in states that do not have COVID-19 under control. If the government cannot keep infection rates from soaring, it is hard to imagine that individual schools have the power to build an oasis free of coronavirus.

Consider Florida -- Dr. Nayyar is a Florida resident, living in the most COVID-19 infected part of the state. Florida's government officials are advocating for schools to reopen within the month despite opposition from teachers. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 case count continues to rise, particularly among children. Hospitalizations have been booming over the past month. The time it takes for Floridians to get test results remains longer than the recommended 48 hours. And contact tracing is more mythology than reality. Hospital bed availability, infection rates, testing capabilities, and a robust contact tracing program are all vital for school reopening. If your community is falling short in these areas, keeping the kids home is a no-brainer.

2. Know how your child's school plans to keep kids safe

As fall nears, local school boards are ramping up their public relations campaigns. The message is, by and large, "We're clean, we're prepared, and your kids are safe here." That's what every parent wants -- no, needs -- to hear. But defending kids against the coronavirus is easier said than done.

It is smart to ask school administrators about their infection prevention protocols. The CDC offers plenty of guidance for schools to combat COVID-19, but each district operates on its own terms. How are students and teachers screened for infection? How often and deeply are the buildings cleaned? What about the ventilation system?

Then there's the actual classroom structure. Is the school using a hybrid-learning model to achieve smaller class sizes? One bad answer might mean it's time to explore alternatives.

3. Analyze whether your family can take the risk

We can only do so much to protect ourselves and our loved ones from COVID-19, but we must do what we can. Some families have unlimited resources to withstand the pandemic, while others can't afford to take any risk. That's why it's imperative to understand your unique situation before loading the kids back on the school bus.

First, consider the health of your household. Do you live with senior citizens or smokers? Does anyone have asthma, diabetes, or another medical condition? If so, a child who brings the coronavirus home could cause grave problems for other family members.

Then there's access to care. Sending a kid back to school without comprehensive health insurance coverage could mean suffering beyond the sickness. Can you absorb unanticipated medical expenses? What's covered under your health insurance plan? And, equally important, do you have a primary care physician?

Finally, it's critical to get on the same page. Parents and guardians and kids must arrive at the school decision together. No one should dictate such an important course of action. Plus, if your kids don't grasp what's at risk, how can you trust them to safely re-enter society?

Healthy habits start at home - masks, social distancing and good hygiene 

Let's say you've reviewed the items above and feel comfortable sending the kids to school. You'll need more than new school supplies and clothes for the upcoming year.

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Healthy habits start at home. Talk -- and talk and talk -- about the importance of good hand hygiene, masks, and social distancing. Show your kids how it's done. And hear them out. Returning to school in a pandemic isn't typical, and you can hardly blame the little ones for being inquisitive, scared, or indifferent.

But the most crucial thing any parent can do is prepare for the worst. Plan for the possibility of infection. Because even if you follow this list, the fact remains that your child may well contract COVID-19. You might, too. The best we can do is prep now rather than wait to see whether everything goes wrong.

Only a little more than half of K-12 schools and colleges in the United States have provided reentry plans for the current school year. My company is helping schools create a more trusted and safe experience. Salesforce released Work.com in June 2020, to help businesses and governments around the world reopen safely and build more resilient communities. This new solution gives school administrators and staff technology designed to help them navigate the complexities of reopening and managing ongoing campus safety:

  • Workplace Command Center is a single technology hub for school administrators to get a comprehensive view of campus readiness, make data-driven decisions, take action, and communicate with families, teachers and staff effectively. Administrators can make decisions based on real-time, tailored public health data as well as private wellness data from within their school community.
  • Wellness Check gives schools the ability to assess if students, teachers and staff are able to return to campus. Administrators can customize Salesforce's CDC-aligned health surveys and automate follow-up actions based on a staff or student's wellness status. From the Command Center, school leaders can surface wellness trends and insights to drive informed decisions around returning staff and students to school, while helping to keep community health data secure.
  • Contact Tracing allows administrators to manually trace health relationships efficiently and privately by collecting data from individuals who are infected or potentially exposed to an infectious disease. Administrators can use visual maps of contacts and locations to monitor and take safety precautions to avoid further interactions and outbreak.

These are difficult times for all -- parents, students, educators and our communities. We must follow the science and healthcare experts, study the data, make sound and informed decisions and continue to practice common sense practices -- wearing masks in public, continuing to social distance, regularly wash our hands and avoid touching our faces. Schools must also consider leveraging technology to improve detection, isolation and contact tracing. The safety of our children will depend on all of us making more informed and better decisions based on grounded truth.

This article is co-authored by Dr. Geeta Nayyar, executive medical director at Salesforce.