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Jeffrey Schiffer, seen here, has been on the fence about whether to send his children back to public school, or consider alternatives. The decision is especially important because his youngest is prone to viral-induced asthma.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

In less than a month, millions of kids will return to school. What do parents need to know?

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There is one question on the lips of nearly every parent Jeffrey Schiffer encounters these days: Are you sending your kids back to school?

As a father of two boys entering Grade 4 and junior kindergarten, Mr. Schiffer, who leads an agency that delivers social services to Indigenous children and families, has been wrestling with his answer for weeks. The idea of sending his children, especially his youngest who is prone to viral-induced asthma, into large classes in which physical distancing is difficult to maintain, feels too risky to him. And while he and his wife are considering pulling them out of school to form a small “educational pod” with other families, this option has them feeling conflicted too.

“It’s a struggle because we’re both strong supporters of the public education system,” he said, noting he has spent hours researching all the possible scenarios. “It’s really stressful.”

With less than four weeks left in most parts of the country before the start of the new school year, time is running out for parents to choose whether to send children to class or keep them at home. For many, the decision is an agonizing one, requiring them to weigh their values, their finances, their personal tolerance for risk and the chances of exposing their children to a virus that has unpredictable and serious consequences.

As schools and businesses reopen, the onus is on individuals to determine how much risk they are willing to take, yet people are generally not great at assessing risk. While experts typically assess risk based on thorough analyses of the available data, statistics and probabilities, most of us do not think that way, said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-founder of Decision Research, a non-profit organization that investigates human judgment.

“The more common – overwhelmingly common – way to assess risk is by our feelings,” he said, adding that most of the time, this serves us well, since our gut feelings are guided by our past experiences. But in novel situations such as the pandemic, “our feelings can be misled or deceived in many ways and perhaps are not so reliable and trustworthy as we would like.”

That is why in these types of situations, we should recognize we cannot trust our gut, and instead, listen to the experts, he said.

Parents’ perception of risk tends to be heightened when children are involved – and perhaps more so when it involves their own children, said Daniel Krewski, professor and director of the McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa. But the key to protecting ourselves and our families from COVID-19 is not to tackle all the various factors that can influence our individual perceptions of risk, he said. Rather, it hinges on clear public-health messages, such as maintaining hand hygiene, keeping a two-metre distance from others, and wearing face masks and shields.

Yet in spite of expert consensus on the need for these measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is a lot of disagreement, including among experts, about how to make trade-offs between people’s safety and economic, educational and other needs, Dr. Slovic said.

“There’s no right answer as to how that trade-off should go. Everything depends on your own values,” he said.

Having a low level of transmission of COVID-19 in the community dramatically reduces the chances of it entering a school environment or any other setting, said Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

But it is difficult to answer what that level of community transmission should be, other than “as close to zero as possible,” Dr. Tuite said.

She noted she recently posted an online tool on Twitter, which uses a model created by U.S. researchers to calculate the likelihood of having someone with COVID-19 appear at a school on any given day, based on the number of reported cases in the community and on the size of the school.

While the tool provides a useful way of thinking about risk, it does not measure the likelihood of an outbreak occurring, since that depends on how well the school is set up to detect a case and prevent transmission, she said. Moreover, it is possible for individuals, especially children, to be infected without showing recognizable symptoms or showing only mild symptoms. So even with low community transmission, cases can still appear in school settings, she said.

Whether parents decide to send their children to school or keep them at home, they still need to be vigilant and consider who they and their children interact with, as well as who those individuals interact with and what they do outside of the time they spend together, Dr. Tuite said.

“The decisions that one person makes affects other people because it is a communicable disease,” she said.

As businesses reopen, people also need to keep in mind that just because they are now allowed to do something does not mean that it is safe to do so, said Greta Bauer, professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario.

Especially with the school year approaching, it is important that everyone, regardless of whether they have school-aged children or not, is “extra cautious – that we scale back on what we’re doing to make some space within public health” to ensure cases of COVID-19 can be detected and kept low, Dr. Bauer said.

In Vaughn, Ont., Stefanie Kranjec and her husband are preparing to keep their two oldest children, who are entering senior kindergarten and junior kindergarten, at home to do virtual learning.

Her husband has a compromised immune system, and Ms. Kranjec, who is a paramedic, is concerned about the potential for COVID-19 cases to rise as students return to school. Even so, they did not make their decision until this week.

“We were just trying to wait it out as long as possible to see which kind of pieces of the puzzle would fall into place,” she said, adding they still plan to send the children to school as soon as possible when they feel it is safe to do so. “At this point, I think really all anybody can do is cross their fingers and hope that they made the right decision.”

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