Medical experts have expressed concerns about physical distancing in school...

Medical experts have expressed concerns about physical distancing in school buses and elsewhere.  Credit: James Carbone

More than 100 school districts and private institutions have started to roll out back-to-school plans ahead of the 2020-21 academic year.

For parents, options may include sending their children back, or keeping them on a remote learning plan during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some districts also will offer the option of a hybrid system, where kids can go to school part time, and work remotely the rest.

Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer and deputy chief medical officer at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, and Dr. Howard Balbi, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, discuss the biggest risks in the educational formats — why a one-size-fits-all decision-making process might not work, and why schools must enforce the rules.

What should parents look at before deciding how to handle the new school year? 

Jarrett: Listen to the options at your school district, and decide which one makes you comfortable. Also, factor in if your child did well with remote learning last year. Unfortunately, there isn't one correct answer here, it's an intensely personal decision. The decison involves a lot more than whether your kid gets COVID-19. What happens if the child brings it back to a household? Are grandparents or otherwise high-risk people at the home? Socialization factors into this as well, because high school students will probably find a way to socialize anyway. That may not be the case for younger kids.

Balbi: I personally think children need to be in school, if at all possible. For social and learning reasons, we should try to put them in a normal setting. Of course the dynamics change if there are risk factors at the house. 

Dr. Howard Balbi, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Good...

Dr. Howard Balbi, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, believes "children need to be in school, if at all possible," but that preventive measures need to be observed to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Credit: Catholic Health Services

Would the hybrid system, in which students would learn remotely part time and come to the school part time, work to keep everyone safe and give kids the ability to socialize?

Jarrett: It depends on how the school sets it up, but generally speaking, the hybrid model allows you to already have virtual learning in place as part of your child's educational experience, in case we have to pivot quickly and close schools. 

Balbi: The hybrid model has advantages, including having fewer kids in a classroom, and depending on how it is set up, more time for schools to clean.

What can parents and schools do to keep kids safe while they're at the school?

Jarrett: Mask-wearing is key, and kids should eat lunch at their desk, not all in a lunch room at the same time. Parents also should get more information on transportation. How are the buses going to be handled, because that's another risk factor.

Balbi: Parents have to be responsible. Don't send your kid to school if they're sick. We can't play around with that. Parents also need to be good role models. If they're telling their kids that the family is healthy and doesn't need a mask, that's going to lead to kids not wearing masks at school. Hand hygiene is also important, and schools should have Purell in the classrooms and around other parts of the school. 

Are school buses a concern?

Jarrett: They are, because they're mostly designed to fill up, and kids end up on top of each other. That's one reason the hybrid model may be beneficial, because fewer kids would be on each day. I'd definitely want to know what you're doing to keep buses safe. Maybe they'll block off seats, or keep the windows open as long as it's not pouring outside.

Balbi: It would be good to limit how many people are on the bus. I think the biggest risks around COVID-19 and schools will include when everyone is coming and going, and it's not just the kids. Parents who decide to drop off and pick up their kids shouldn't be congregating around one place and talking. 

Latest videos


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months