School Reopenings: How Grandparents Can Safely Help Families

At the same time, socialization is vital to children’s development. School teaches kids interpersonal skills and helps them build emotional resilience, which will serve them throughout their lives—including during future pandemics. Without schools reopened, many people, such as your daughter and son-in-law, are essentially asked to choose between work and child care. Every option involves sacrifices.  

The instinctive advice for any doctor or public-health official to give right now is to play it safe. Grandparents and other “high-risk” groups should avoid child care, because reopenings involve too many variables and unknowns. Schools have opened safely in other countries, but none had the degree of community spread that we currently have in much of the United States.

I don’t truly know what that advice means, though. Many families rely on elders to help with child care even in normal times. If you don’t take care of your grandson while he’s in Zoom school, your daughter and her husband will have a much harder time working. If people can’t work, they can’t make money. If they can’t make money, a kid might eventually not have a home from which to school.

In an ideal system, there would be child care for all who need it. As it is, we are dealing with the immediate conditions in the real world, where parents rely on extended family. Your grandkids stand to learn from your presence, and your family would surely appreciate it. So I do think you can justify helping with child care. It just needs to be done carefully.

Once kids are back in school—even one in a family, even part-time—they could carry the virus home to anyone else in the family. There is some evidence of an age gradient, meaning younger kids are less likely to be infectious than older kids. If that proves true, your 3-year-old granddaughter should pose a low risk of seeding an outbreak in your family. But we don’t know the exact odds.

For that reason, I’d recommend behaving as though your family bubble is no longer a bubble at all. Interact with your family at a distance outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces, masked when possible. (I hope this proves too cautious, and that widespread, rapid testing will mean this impersonal way of existing is temporary.)

You’re fortunate to live in Northern California, where the climate is temperate enough to spend a lot of time outside. We still do not have evidence of outdoor transmission happening at any significant scale. So if you have a yard or a patio or a porch with Wi-Fi, use it lavishly. Put out an umbrella or make your family build you a gazebo to compensate you for your time. If they refuse, settle for a pergola.

Even while outdoors, it’s ideal to wear masks and avoid getting too close, especially if you have to be with someone for six hours. Being in close proximity for a long time may mean that a person who is emitting only a small amount of the virus could end up exposing you to enough that you get infected. (It doesn’t help that kids tend to fidget and pull at their own masks, which in many cases are too big for them.)