Why an epidemiologist is keeping her 3 school-age kids home from school this fall

  • Some families in Montgomery County, Maryland were so set on sending their children back to school that they challenged an official's decision to keep private schools closed.
  • Rebekah Natanov, an epidemiologist and mother of 4 who lives in that county, would like to send her children to school, but she doesn't think it's safe.
  • Natanov said she would enroll her kids once the coronavirus rate drops to about 1 new case in 100,000 people.
  • Reopening schools too soon, according to Natanov, could inevitably just lead to more quarantines and remote learning.
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Some families in Montgomery County, Maryland were so set on sending their children back to school in person in September that they filed a federal lawsuit challenging the county's decision to prohibit private schools from reopening.

Due to mounting pressure, Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's health officer, reversed his order earlier this month, even though he doesn't think it's safe for schools to offer live instruction in September due to the county's high coronavirus case rate. 

While the reversal means Rebekah Natanov, an epidemiologist, now has the option to send her children to school in person next month, she's decided against it.

She said she agrees with Gayles. The case rate, from her perspective, is simply still too high. Sending children back too soon could lead to the exact scenario the plaintiffs are trying to avoid — more quarantined children learning from home, Natanov said. 

"When you open schools and you start getting everyone quarantined every few weeks, it's going to be kind of like going back to March, I'm afraid," Natanov said, "People ending up with stay-at-home orders or getting quarantined to their houses because they've been exposed. Then, you can't even go to the grocery store, much less have a playdate."

In the past week, Montgomery County reported a daily average of 44 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. Natanov said she would only feel comfortable sending her children back to school once the rate drops to one case per 100,000 people, which was the standard many European countries set prior to reopening schools. 

Natanov won't send her kids back to school when her office hasn't even reopened

Natanov has four children and works for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, overseeing nursing home quality measures, and will continue working from home. Even if she wanted to work from the office, she couldn't. It's only open to employees in top leadership positions. 

"I can't even get my things out of my office," Natanov said. "They're trying to open schools, but the federal government isn't opening the office buildings." 

Natanov's husband, who works in insurance and financial planning, returned to his office in June. 

That means Natanov will be balancing her work obligations while overseeing her children's remote classes, assignments, and their other daily needs. The family has an au pair who lives with them and will mostly take care of the three- and one-year-old children. Natanov handles the seven- and six-year-old's academics. 

"This was not an easy choice," Natanov said of keeping her children at home. Natanov starts her work day at 7 am. Once the kids go to sleep at around 8 pm, Natanov continues working until about midnight most evenings.

Natanov's two older children attend a private school that will only offer remote learning to start. The school is considering transitioning to live instruction in October, but Natanov said she'll only send them to school once the case rate drops significantly. 

Her three-year-old attends a preschool program that operates out of a synagogue, and is offering in-person programming. Due to the high case rate, and the fact that people outside of the school use the facility for prayer services and other events, Natanov decided to keep her preschooler home.

Natanov thinks, at this point, that in-person schooling should be reserved for vulnerable students, including those who get therapy services at school. 

"My kids, who do fine and don't have any special needs, should be staying home," Natanov said. "Part of my decision for keeping my kids home is because I don't think they need to be part of the problem."

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