Care and Feeding

Too Many Germs

What can my kids’ school do to safeguard against the coronavirus?

A student coughing into her bent elbow.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by sebarnes/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Like most schools, my children’s school is a germ factory, and every day I worry about sending them off into this environment with the outbreak of the coronavirus. What should my children’s school be doing to help protect my kids?

—So Many Germs

Dear So Many Germs,

I am not a medical professional or a policymaker; my perspective is limited to my personal experience. I’ll tell you what is currently being done at the elementary school where I teach:

First, my colleagues and I all recognize that the situation is very fluid. No cases of the new coronavirus have been diagnosed in Connecticut at this time, and we know that things may change rapidly as the situation evolves.

That said, students are washing their hands far more often, and we have taken measures to ensure that students understand how to effectively wash their hands, going so far as to directly instruct and practice the process. Failing to wash your hands properly is a common problem for both children and adults, and frequent, effective hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent many illnesses, including the coronavirus.

Students are being taught to cough and sneeze into their elbows, and this practice is being reinforced with great fidelity. Students and adults are refraining from high-fives or handshakes and are instead waving hello or bumping elbows.

Students or staff who are ill are being asked to remain at home. This is not the time to “tough it out.” The healthier you are if you contract the coronavirus, the greater your chance of a speedy recovery.

These practices are no different from those recommended to prevent the spread of the flu, but we are admittedly adhering to them far more stringently.

Most important, we are keeping our children calm by ensuring that they have accurate information. Several of my students have arrived at school this week with fragments of information, both correct and incorrect, or bits of actual misinformation, and this is raising unnecessary levels of anxiety in our kids. We want to ensure that our students are engaging in behavior that will keep them safe, and we don’t want to overwhelm them with unnecessary information, but we also want to ensure that they are not misinterpreting and/or spreading false information.

It’s a tricky balance that every teacher is striving to meet.

As I said, things are likely to change rapidly, so school officials must maintain a high level of vigilance and react quickly and appropriately when and if conditions change. Monitoring the developments closely and keeping an open line of communication to medical experts, policymakers, and families will be essential.

You should know that student safety is the primary concern for every teacher and administrator whom I have ever known, so they will be working tirelessly to ensure that everything possible is done to keep children healthy and safe at school.

As a parent myself, I recognize that these are scary times. There’s nothing wrong with asking lots of questions of your school administrators and offering assistance if possible. Your peace of mind is also important, so don’t be afraid to do whatever is needed to feel good about sending your child to school each day.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I saw your recent response to a parent concerned about too much screen time in the classroom. I have a high schooler, a middle schooler, and a first grader, and I feel that their small private school has the opposite problem—it does not have funding for iPads or even a decent computer lab. While I am not concerned that my first grader isn’t using technology in the classroom, I am concerned that our older kids are not getting enough exposure to the technology they will need later in life. As far as I can tell, they have a very rudimentary understanding of PowerPoint and Word, and they can use Google Docs, but beyond that they aren’t getting any more training.

“Computer class” is worthless because the computers are always broken and are out of date. We did broach the subject with the IT guy at school, who said they are working on a multiyear upgrade of the computers, but it’s slow going because of money. Should I be concerned? Should I be supplementing their exposure to technology with outside courses? If so, what courses? Coding courses or something else?

Apart from this issue, we are happy with the education they receive, so we don’t really want to switch to a more “techy” school. They are, like most teenagers, total pros with a smartphone, so part of me feels like they will catch on to whatever comes their way after they leave this school.

—Tech Deprived

Dear Tech Deprived,

Your older kids don’t need coding skills, but they definitely do need a higher level of computer literacy than they currently have, especially the high schooler, especially if the high schooler’s future plans involve college in any way. Since it sounds like your school won’t have the capacity to provide that education in the foreseeable future, then yes, if you have the means, you should look into supplements to develop their skills. Here’s what I’d prioritize:

First and foremost, the middle schooler and high schooler should both learn to type, if they can’t already. There are plenty of good websites where they can practice the basics: Nitro Type, Typing.com, and TypingClub, among others. Next, they should both develop basic fluency with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, as well as Google Docs and Google Slides. They should be able to set the margins and spacing on a document, choose an appropriate font, change the text alignment (and they should also know the standard expectations for all of those things). They should be able to make a simple slide deck that features a consistent format and employs basic animations, and they should know how to insert material like images or video clips into a presentation. They should also be familiar with standard keyboard shortcuts. If your middle schooler can get the hang of those things, they should be in good shape, for the time being.

Your high schooler should take their skills a little further, though how far depends on how long it will be until graduation and what they plan to do afterward. I think your kid should practice the more advanced features of Office and G Suite (like creating charts or graphs and formatting more complex or specific documents) and develop some familiarity with cloud-based collaboration (sharing documents and files with appropriate permissions, adding and resolving comments, perhaps use of Dropbox). They could try their hand at some light photo and video editing, too. More than that, though, your high schooler needs to grasp not just the functions of the computer itself but all of the academic and life skills for which computers are standard tools. Can they independently develop their own computer-based system to organize information, keep track of tasks, manage their time? Can they adequately research a topic, distinguishing legitimate sites and sources to do so—and can they then write a paper about it? Can they protect their data and their identity? Can they use age-appropriate email etiquette? These are the questions I’d want to answer affirmatively before sending a young adult out into the world.

If your children don’t have much access to computers at home, check out your public library’s offerings. There will be functioning computers there, and hopefully some structured classes on using them to boot. (In fact, regardless of your access at home, it’d be worthwhile to check out what the library offers.) If not, I’d ask the librarian for recommendations! They might be able to point you to other local resources, like a youth center, an after-school program, or a community college. If such a thing is in your budget, consider hiring a tutor for your high schooler, too; a local college student would probably be well-equipped for the job.

Also, I know this is not the question you asked and that you’re not interested in switching schools—but if I were you, I’d push much harder for your current school to modernize its technology. A high school education that includes no formal exposure to computers is, to be blunt, inadequate for modern college and career readiness. Computer skills aren’t just a techy extra; they’re essential and can’t really be substituted with personal smartphone prowess. If you can support the school in fundraising or organize with other parents to do so, I absolutely would, because this seems like a high educational priority to me. I hope your kids—and everyone else’s—get the resources they need.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

I have a 5-year-old boy in kindergarten at a private school. We were recently informed that his teacher has concerns about him having a learning disability, and as the private school is for “normal” intelligence children only, they’re currently holding our contract for next year pending evaluation results.

In the event they don’t let him come back next year, we need to decide what to do. In short, how many school moves is too many? The information online about the long-term effects of frequently changing schools is terrifying.

We put him in private school because we didn’t love the elementary school we’re assigned to, and we’re currently saving to buy a house. We could scramble to be ready to buy a house (and have no other emergency savings or cushion) in the summer and have him start first grade in a new town, at the local school. Or we could follow our current, more responsible financial plan, have him go into first grade in our current town, be ready to buy a house next winter, and move him midyear to a new town school or let him finish first grade in our current town and have him start second grade in a new town.

But that would be four school moves in four years (pre-K to private K, private K to first in current town, first to second in new town)! What do you think? There seem to be no good options.

—Two Moves Too Many?

Hi there, Moves,

That’s a lot to chew on! First, I would recommend limiting your Googling on the subject. Chances are your son will be fine no matter what route you choose. Every child is different, and most are very resilient when it comes to change at this age. I teach in a very transient district, and a small number of students come and go throughout the year. Most of them hop in midstream and do just fine both academically and socially.

With that in mind, my personal recommendation here is to go with the financially responsible plan. It will guarantee your family’s stability in the long run, and I doubt it will have a detrimental impact on your son’s education. That said, if your son does have a learning difference, to help him ease the transition, I’d find a local service or program that offers him some academic support. It isn’t difficult to supplement a first grader’s education with something like Sylvan or a more tailored after-school enrichment program. You could even do it yourself if you’ve got the time. If I were you, I’d brush up on the basics of the Common Core standards for first and second and try supporting him at home before making a decision that could negatively impact my family’s financial well-being.

Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington state)

We currently have a 3½-year-old, whom we are planning to send to Montessori pre-K next fall. He turns 4 just before the cutoff for kindergarten. He is also an extremely energetic young man who sometimes struggles with appropriate social/emotional skills, so we’ve worked hard at home on things like being gentle and talking about our feelings rather than hitting, etc., but it’s ongoing work. Here’s the real question: We have the opportunity to travel abroad as a family for a year just after he’s done with his Montessori pre-K. That means we’ll leave the summer he turns 5, be gone for a year, and return just before he turns 6, and he’d start kindergarten after we get back. The plan while we’re gone is to live in four different places, 90 days in each, and to find some kind of school/play group/kindergarten in each place (taught in English) that he can attend at least part time. Is this insane? Is it too much transition for a kid his age? Transitions are a struggle on a micro level, and he is a creature of routine, but he also loves going to new places and doing new things.

Additionally, are we going to be destroying his ability to prepare for kindergarten? If we do go away, how can we help make sure he’s ready? And is there a chance the local school district will insist he go to first grade because he’s 6? (I know you’re not huge fans of redshirting, but it seems like it really makes sense in this case.) We’re looking at this as a great opportunity to learn new things and experience new cultures and parts of the world, but are we going to cause everyone so much stress that it’s not worth it? Basically, I’m looking for a teacher’s blessing to do this really exciting thing (or a reality check if it’s a terrible idea) and also some advice about how to achieve it in the best way possible to make it a great experience and not a recipe for disaster.

—Kindergarten Gap Year?

Dear Gap Year,

This question truly left me stuck for some time. Often, challenging decisions for parents are easier for teachers because we have some emotional distance from the situation and because we have broader experience (you’re raising on average one to three children; I taught 80 in one year at a middle school). But I really grappled with my answer here. I say that so that you know it really is a difficult question. In the end, although I foresee a few bumps in the road, my instincts say to go on this trip. It sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your entire family, and I think it would be unique and valuable, despite the difficulties.

Let’s start with academics. To me, rather than holding him back a year, the ideal solution would be to have him learn all the content from kindergarten while you’re abroad. Three months at your first stop should be a long enough stint to get him registered in kindergarten wherever you’re going. If you can’t enroll him in school while traveling, there are academic resources you can use to help supplement what he’s missing in kindergarten while you’re on your trip. Programs like Lexia, IXL, i-Ready, or Khan Academy are all ones I’ve seen used in classrooms in conjunction with more traditional, in-person instruction to help augment kids’ skills in literacy or mathematics. I often advise parents against home schooling—it’s not as easy as it looks!—but in this particular case, you could also look into home-schooling resources for the year so that your son is on track to start first grade when he returns. Take a look at the Common Core state standards for kindergarten, or whatever equivalent your state uses, and try to see if he can learn those things on the road. Otherwise, there’s no reason you couldn’t advocate for him to start in kindergarten instead of first grade. I can’t promise the school will let you—that’s at the discretion of your school district, and some districts are more restrictive than others—but you can absolutely make the case for your son.

Now let’s talk about routines and transitions. If you do this, I would anticipate some new behaviors. That’s a lot of instability, and all children do better academically and behaviorally/socially when their lives are stable. There are things you can do to ease the transitions. Talk to him about the entire trip before you go, at length, including a list of all the stops, using a map of some kind if possible so he can see where he’s going (visuals are very helpful for kids this age). Get the biggest wall calendar you can reasonably pack, and mark all the travel days. Then each night, have him cross off that day and help him count to see how close he is to the next move.

When you’re in each place, try to keep the same general daily schedule in terms of wake-up and bedtime routines. It might even be helpful to make a visual schedule of his days that includes everything he’ll be doing consistently—brushing teeth, bath time, reading before bed, etc. If your son sees this daily plan, he will be able to prepare himself for the transitions throughout the day, which will make the days easier overall.

I can’t give you exactly what you wanted: an unconditional blessing or a reality check. But I can offer something in the middle: You have my blessing, as a teacher, that you should do this thing, but the reality is that in order to make this thing a positive experience for your son, you will need to do a lot of work for him. Do I think the work is a reasonable price to pay? Yes. Do I think it will be easy? No, but it will be worth it, and it will enrich your son’s life.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

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