That’s frightening. But a case at your child’s school does not mean you should panic.

The coronavirus is unpredictable, but one thing seems certain in this back-to-school season: Outbreaks will appear in many K-12 schools as they reopen.

“It’s not a question of if, but when outbreaks will occur,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and the former health commissioner of Baltimore.

“We have to be realistic,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University. “If we are opening schools, there will be some Covid.”

That inevitability can feel frightening. But a case at your child’s school does not mean you should panic. And a classroom in quarantine, or a school forced to switch to remote learning, does not necessarily mean a district has failed. In fact, if your school is following an established pandemic procedure, it might mean things are working as planned.

Here are a few questions and suggestions to help you calibrate your concern and weigh contingencies, based on our conversations with epidemiologists and public health experts.

If there’s a case, where did that person get exposed?

“It’s important to distinguish between Covid in your school, which is bad, but not exactly the same thing as Covid being transmitted in your school,” Dr. Linas said. “People have lives outside of school. It’s very likely that people will get infected somewhere else.”

A few unrelated cases at a school does not necessarily mean there’s an outbreak. If community transmission rates are high, students are most likely getting infected outside of school, where the environment is less controlled. (Most experts agree that students shouldn’t return to school if more than 5 percent of people in their community test positive.) Effective contact tracing is essential to help families and classrooms assess risks and make a plan.

How transparent is your district?

Just because there’s a case in your child’s school, it doesn’t mean that your child has been exposed. “By just passing a kid in a hallway, your kid is extremely unlikely to get Covid-19,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and assistant dean at Brown University. “It’s really about being in a classroom with that other person for a significant period of time.”

If your child hasn’t been anywhere near the infected child, she said, “it would not be appropriate for your kid to quarantine.”

But transparency about cases varies across districts. Some, citing privacy concerns, are only releasing limited data — if any at all. But that might be because they’re interpreting HIPAA incorrectly. Either way, dashboards and trackers are slowly popping up across the country, under pressure from parents and doctors. Detailed, reliable information about outbreaks can keep learning as uninterrupted as possible and may save lives.

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