Coronavirus and the classroom: TODAY All Day answers viewer questions

Craig Melvin sat with experts to answer viewer questions about school safety.

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By Lisa Tolin

Millions of children are getting ready for a school year unlike any other, whether they’re wearing masks and keeping six feet apart, or learning from a laptop around the kitchen table.

So how should parents navigate the coming year? TODAY All Day, the TODAY show's streaming channel, gathered experts for a special hour-long town hall, “Coronavirus and the Classroom," a collaboration with Common Sense. If anything is clear from their discussion, it’s that there are no easy answers.

TODAY's Craig Melvin spoke with Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas schools. They answered questions about COVID-19 and schools from Craig and viewers:

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When is it safe to open schools?

"Where everybody draws the line is different, which, I think, adds to the challenge," Nuzzo said. "But clearly, we want to see a situation where the case numbers are stable or they're declining. If they're increasing, it's going to be very hard to think about keeping the virus out of schools."

Some public health experts have suggested it is safe to return to school if a community has fewer than 75 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last week and a positive test rate of under 5%.

When school will open will vary by location and follow CDC guidelines for safety in each school.

What's the argument for getting students back in the classroom sooner rather than later?

In Dallas, Hinojosa decided to push the start of school from August 17 to at least September 8. Nuzzo agreed that in much of the country it probably is too soon to reopen, but called that unfortunate.

"There really is no replacement for in-school education, in-classroom education," she said. "Particularly for younger students, that developmentally need that social interaction and all of the benefits that being in a same room with their peers and their teacher can provide. So a lot's at stake. And it's urgent that we get our epidemic to the point where we can feel more confident about reopening schools safely."

'My son starts pre-K this year. Would it be safe to send him to school rather than e-learning?'

Nuzzo said this was a tough question to answer and depends on where the family lives and its circumstances, like whether there are high-risk individuals at home.

"Clearly, the safest thing for anybody right now is to stay home. But when we're thinking about sending children to school, it's a question of balancing the benefits and the risks," she said. "And particularly when we're talking about preschool — I have a preschooler, so I know this first hand — the benefits of being in school are quite high. It's really hard to e-learn at the preschool age."

Still, she said, depending where you live, it may not be worth sending your child to school if you can avoid it.

'I have a child starting school and just had a newborn. How do I protect my newborn while my oldest is in school?'

Nuzzo said. Each family should think about its family vulnerabilities. The biggest risk is to someone with advanced age or an underlying health condition. Although children tend to fare better with the virus than adults, if there are serious consequences, they tend to be under the age of 12 months, so she can understand concern from parents with infants.

It's also hard for young children to keep social distance at home, but Nuzzo said she would encourage children coming home from school to wash their hands not not get too close to the newborn.

What else should parents consider as they decide whether to do distance learning?

It's up to each family to consider its options and vulnerabilities, Hinojosa said. Among the factors to consider:

  • Financial circumstances. Hinojosa said 92% of his district's parents are economically disadvantaged. And for those who work in front-line jobs or at hotels or restaurants, there's no option to work from home. "They need to be able to make sure that they have an opportunity for their students to be involved in something that is meaningful and productive."
  • Quality of instruction. "When we started this, we all put it together overnight," he said. But now that teachers have had more training, he expects remote education to be more effective. Still, he said, "There's gonna be a learning loss. We haven't seen our kids since March."
  • Special needs. Children with special needs or second language needs are the most difficult to teach remotely.
  • Mental health issues. A lot of families depend on teachers and counselors to help students build relationships with each other.
  • Age of students. Younger students seem to be less vulnerable to the virus and less able to learn remotely, so many experts say they should be prioritized for in-person learning.

'My kids take the bus to school. Can you tell me how to best social distance on the bus?'

Hinojosa said this may be his district's biggest challenge, and he is still working through solutions, but thinks even with masks and plexiglass, buses should be limited to 12 students. "I wouldn't put the student on the bus if the bus is crowded," he said.

Nuzzo said parents should consider how many students are on the bus, and whether they are the same students their children would interact with during the day.

Rolling down the windows may help in some places, but in Dallas, where it's 100 degrees, it would take away the air-conditioning.

'I'm a mother to two children with autism. How do school districts plan to support special needs children?'

Hinojosa said this is a top priority and one of his biggest challenges. Many students can't socially distance and get proper attention from teachers. He says his district is prioritizing special education for in-person learning

He says each child will need an individual plan worked out by the parent, teacher and principal.

How can parents help keep children safe?

Nuzzo suggested "homework" for families to reduce their own exposure as much as possible to reduce the chance of sending a sick child to school. Reducing exposure from parents and other family members will make the school's job easier.