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Corona School Daze: Going Back to School (Or Not) with Diabetes

As the school year approaches, families with diabetes are trying to determine how to safely navigate returning to school in the time of COVID-19

Parenting can be hard. You thought the debate over breast feeding or bottle feeding was tough? This year, as a result of COVID-19, parents are contemplating how to handle the back-to-school season. There are several options: sending your kids to in-person school full time, sending them only part-time if the school district allows it (known as a hybrid model), or keeping them home for remote learning (either using curriculum offered by your kids’ school, or parent-chosen curriculum through homeschooling). The decision is difficult, and as school districts determine their plan for the fall, many people won’t find this decision in their own hands.

“Having an underlying condition such as diabetes has often led to many more complications for those who also happen to contract COVID,” said Marlisa Brown, a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists (ADCES). But aside from COVID-19, other factors are at play, including:

  • Whether parents are working full time or part time, and if they can work remotely or need to work outside the home.

  • Whether parents or childcare providers are available to help with remote learning.

  • A student’s social and emotional needs.

  • A student with special needs who may require in-person services provided through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan.

  • Other health issues that are associated with increased complications of a COVID diagnosis.

As a result, the decision about whether kids should attend school in-person brings up many questions. As a resource, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Back To School Decision Making Tool to help you determine which choice might be best for your family. To read about returning to college during the pandemic, click here.

“Make the choice that is right for YOU,” said Leigh Fickling, a mother of 11-year-old twins (one who has type 1 diabetes and one who has autism) who began attending school remotely in North Carolina in early August. The school offered a choice between remote or hybrid learning for the first quarter, and the Fickling family chose the remote option. However, the school board soon voted to have the whole school switch to remote learning due to rising COVID-19 cases in their area. Fickling said that the family chose the remote option from the start due to their daughter’s diabetes and local COVID-19 cases, even though their son with autism and other learning disabilities requires special education services that are easier to obtain through in-person learning. “We were not willing to take the risk of potential exposure with the current level of community spread and number of positive cases of those tested,” she said. Fickling has worked remotely for Duke University since March and expects to continue doing so through the fall semester.

“I don’t think any parent is 100% sure they are doing the right thing,” said Debby, a parent of two elementary school kids in Maine. Debby has type 1 diabetes which puts her at greater risk for severe illness, especially if her children become exposed at school. While Debby’s diabetes has kept her family close to home over the last few months, and avoiding events with more than ten people, “we are all healthy enough that I think we would be fine” if someone were to get sick, she said. The local school district offered families the choice to attend school in-person for five days a week or learn from home full time, beginning on September 8. Their family has chosen to attend their public school remotely for the first few months of the school year “to leave room for parents that don’t have the choice” of keeping their kids home. She added, “I don’t want my kids to have to think about the virus all day, every day, and get in trouble for getting too close to their friends or just not like school anymore. I also don’t want to spread the virus or make teachers sick.”

Returning to school

If your school system is reopening, either full time or through a hybrid system, there are “tons of pros to being in school,” said Diana Isaacs, an ADCES spokesperson. “Specifically, the social and emotional interactions with peers, along with the structured environment” will help kids who have likely been out of school since the spring. And while online school is an option for some, she said, not everyone has the same access to the Internet and technology, which can promote educational and health disparities.

Concern over contracting and spreading COVID-19 is the main drawback of returning to in-person education. “While kids are often asymptomatic or have mild cases, there are certainly exceptions,” Isaacs said. “They can spread it to a person in their family. And evidence suggests that there can be worse outcomes with COVID-19 and diabetes, especially if the diabetes is not well managed.” Such fears can cause anxiety. “No one wants to risk getting a family member or loved one sick.”

Some families do feel the benefits of returning to school outweigh the potential risks. Tabatha Willauer, who has type 1 diabetes, lives in Michigan with her husband and two kids – Reid and Violet – who both do not have diabetes. Reid is entering first grade and will go to in-person school full time and Violet will stay home since she isn’t enrolled in preschool yet.

Reid is excited to return to school. “He needs it,” Willauer said. “He’s a social butterfly and is not doing well being stuck at home. I’m watching my kids become depressed and even my neighbor’s kids are. Our kids are begging to go to school.”

Willauer said that her area “has been extremely hard hit with suicides and suicide attempts; they outnumber COVID deaths significantly.” She also cited her husband’s work as a volunteer firefighter and said that always knowing he might not return when he leaves the house to answer a call puts things into perspective. “I can’t worry about the what ifs all the time. I’ve seen the other side of this shutdown, and the mental health crisis from this scares me. For me, getting sick is not my top worry.”

Remote learning

On the flip side, many families are doing virtual learning this fall, either by choice or because it is the only option their school is offering. Kimberly Baillieul is a mother with type 1 diabetes in Ohio. She is sending her son to kindergarten this fall through a remote program their public school district is offering. The school recently announced that the hybrid program that is also being offered will be remote until November 1, and then it will return to in-person education. However, Baillieul is keeping her son in the full-time remote option.

“I am heartbroken that my son’s kindergarten experience will be online, as he is a very social child,” she said. “However, he needs stability and the hybrid plan was too focused on the ever-shifting local health department rating, which means he could potentially have a crazy schedule.”

Baillieul, who works for her local city government and is the author of the book Mommy Beeps, has worked remotely since March. While some of her coworkers have returned to the office, she has gotten a medical note to work remotely due to her diabetes. “There are no wrong schooling choices, because this is hard across the board,” she said. “Some folks have no option, given their health.”

Academic advice: be flexible

Regardless of whatever option you choose for your children and family, the first few weeks of school are sure to be filled with adjustments for everyone.

Kristin, an elementary school art teacher with type 1 diabetes, has been teaching remotely in Minnesota since the spring. She will likely send her kindergartener and third grader – neither of whom have diabetes – to school through a hybrid model, beginning the last week of August. “Advocate for your health and the health of your family,” she said. “I will be having discussions with their teachers to be sure they are aware of the risks my children bring home to me if precautions at school are not taken, or if they are lax in their follow-through,” she said.

Abby Linnerson is also teaching remotely from her school’s classroom in Nebraska. As a language arts teacher in a school district with 300 students in preschool through grade 12, Linnerson, who has type 1 diabetes, is sending her 15-month-old and four-year-old to daycare and preschool, respectively, so she can continue to work.

“The first few weeks of school are going to be hard on everyone: teachers, parents and students,” she said. “Lessons will be adapted as the situation progresses. There will be some new instructional methods that will fail and need to change. Have patience and try to be as positive and encouraging to your children as you can. Praise them for successfully wearing their masks for that ‘x’ amount of time. Understand that we teachers are just as frustrated with the new normal as you and your child are.”

Whatever choice you make, trust that it will be the right one for your family. Continue to stay educated on the latest news around COVID-19 and don’t be afraid to adjust your plans if it means keeping yourself and your family healthy and safe.

“At the end of the day when I go to sleep, I have to rest knowing we made the best decision for our family,” said Fickling. “We educated ourselves on COVID, and we’ve listened to public health experts. We feel peace about our decision and also realize how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to work from home so we can help guide and support our kids as they begin a new school year.”

To read about returning to school during the pandemic for college-aged students, click here.

About Cheryl

Cheryl Alkon is a seasoned writer and the author of the book Balancing Pregnancy With Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby. The book has been called “Hands down, the best book on type 1 diabetes and pregnancy, covering all the major issues that women with type 1 face. It provides excellent tips and secrets for achieving the best management” by Gary Scheiner, the author of Think Like A Pancreas. Since 2010, the book has helped countless women around the world conceive, grow and deliver healthy babies while also dealing with diabetes.

Cheryl covers diabetes and other health and medical topics for various print and online clients. She lives in Massachusetts with her family and holds an undergraduate degree from Brandeis University and a graduate degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

She has lived with type 1 diabetes for more than four decades, since being diagnosed in 1977 at age seven.