School Openings During COVID: Parent Decisions
Our founding fathers probably didn’t anticipate a global pandemic when they wrote that bit about shared sovereignty between federal and state governments. Or maybe they did. The United States is certainly no stranger to outbreaks of infectious disease. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the functioning of the nation’s government into a particularly harsh spotlight as each state has responded to the situation with different — sometimes vastly different — measures.
Depending on which state you live in, you may have started a lockdown in March that hasn’t ended yet, or you might be able to go out to restaurants and bars. Maybe you’re required to wear personal protective equipment like face masks or gloves anytime you leave your home, or only when you go into certain stores, or not at all. You might see disapproving, side-eye glances when you’re wearing a mask, or only when you’re not wearing one. Depending on where you live, your daily reality could look very different from those in the next state over.
Government officials were hopeful we’d wipe this thing out by spring, yet here we are, considering what we’re going to do with our kids come August. As governors, district officials, school board administrators, teachers, and parents all scramble to weigh their options and consider the risks, it can be challenging to even pinpoint what we should be asking ourselves and each other during this time. Here’s where we stand in regards to school openings during COVID.
A Unique Challenge for Parents
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an article for K-12 administrators on preparing for a safe return to school, it included a link to its “Mitigation Strategies for Communities” page, saying that these strategies “in turn will help schools to open and stay open safely.” Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, most communities haven’t followed all the CDC guidelines and the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are astronomical and frankly, overwhelming.
It’s important to remember that this virus doesn’t discriminate, and the people making the decisions on how and whether to reopen are physiologically just as vulnerable to getting ill. Many have school-aged kids, too. What is imbalanced is the level of opportunity for practicing mitigation strategies, and this is especially problematic when it comes to the discussion of reopening schools.
Single-parent households and low-income families undoubtedly have fewer options than families with two parents or a higher income. Obviously. Families with both parents working outside the home face obstacles too: some are able to afford a full-time childcare provider in their homes — such as a babysitter or nanny. Most are not. Some are working from home. Many aren’t.
Naturally, parents feel lost. They’re coming up on five months or more of being at home with their kids all day, every day. They’ve been trying to maintain some semblance of a routine in the midst of the daily devastations and collective trauma surrounding them. They’re overworked and exhausted. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that no one seems to have a clear answer on what should be done with school openings during COVID, because there is no clear answer.
What Are Experts Saying?
The CDC strongly recommended that schools reopen this fall due to the low transmission rate among children and the importance of schools in community infrastructure. Simultaneously, it recommended that school administrators consider closing schools in communities with “substantial, uncontrolled transmission.” Again, each state government seems to be using different metrics when it comes to measuring whether or not their level of COVID transmission is “substantial” or “uncontrolled.”
That’s why it’s critical that parents look first and foremost at the available hard data for their area. Numbers don’t lie. But politicians’ tweets and Facebook friends’ rants don’t necessarily capture reality. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and The COVID Tracking Project offer some helpful, well-culled maps and trackers, and there are plenty more out there.
As much as we want a specific, one-size-fits-all answer around school openings during COVID, there isn’t one. Because the spread of the virus is so different from state to state — and really from city to city — there’s no guideline that’s going to perfectly apply across the nation or even across a whole state.
What Are Districts Doing?
Some districts have already announced that school will be 100% online this fall. Many (if not most) districts that are still planning to reopen will likely opt for virtual school by the time August or September rolls around. Why? Because we are a super litigious society, and parents are far more protective of their children than in generations past. School district officials likely aren’t stoked about having to implement an entirely virtual learning environment with limited time and resources, but they’re almost certainly less excited to spend weeks in court when a student or teacher gets coronavirus on their watch.
Of the top 15 districts in the U.S., 10 are reopening either 100% online or with a hybrid approach of remote learning and phased in-person classes. Other districts will likely follow suit, but may not have the resources to send 300,000 iPads to students in need, like New York City Schools. What most of these districts are doing is surveying parents to gauge both preferences and capabilities, while considering the best option for their area.
Some school districts, like Hillsborough County Public Schools in the Tampa Bay area, are offering parents the option of sending their kids back to school in-person, attending classes online during normal school hours, or accessing a virtual environment at any time of day as long as they complete their required coursework. A little further south in Florida, Miami-Dade County Public School Board is still deciding, likely feeling the pressure from a lawsuit the Florida Education Association filed against Governor Ron DeSantis for “reckless and unsafe reopening of schools.”
In Texas, the Education Commissioner has announced that school openings during COVID are safe. Students in Dallas will be given the option to attend in-person or learn remotely, while those in Houston will all start the year online, returning to in-person instruction toward the end of October.
Chicago Public Schools has proposed a hybrid reopening plan but is still undecided. Philadelphia schools will be fully remote until November, then they’ll go hybrid too. Kids in the Las Vegas area and across Los Angeles will be fully remote, with no definitive date on an in-person or hybrid approach.
What Are Parents Considering?
If you’re a parent of a child in one of the districts who have decided on 100% virtual instruction, congratulations. While distance learning is going to throw you some interesting challenges (and opportunities!), at least you’re not in the position of deciding what to do with your kiddos. We know the situation still sucks, mamas and papas. None of this is ideal.
For those who are being given the option of whether or not to send your child back to school, start by going on your district’s website and seeing what precautions schools will be taking. What are the rules around masks? Will the desks be spaced for social distancing? How will proper sanitization take place, and how often? How will schools determine a need to close if there is an outbreak, and how often will they communicate with you?
If you’re considering distance learning, research the specifics. What technology will you need? What times of day will your child need to be online? Is the school offering any resources or assistance? If your district is offering a survey, take it. Let your voice be heard. Parental feedback is one of the primary considerations districts are using to decide on school openings during COVID.
If you don’t have an option due to your work schedule, affordability of childcare, need for free or reduced meals, or any other factor, do some research on what your child’s school will be doing to mitigate risks. Then talk to your child. Educating children on how to social distance is heartbreaking, of course. But it’s also an important part of parenting in 2020. Cover the basics on mask-wearing and hand washing.
Answer their questions, and if you don’t know an answer, try to find it. Remember that taking your kids’ experience just as seriously as your own will convey safety and trust right now. Insert a little lightheartedness where you can — maybe allow your kids to pick out their own masks or get some fun-scented hand sanitizer.
You may find yourself in the position of having the option of whether or not to send your child to school. If this is the case — and we know this is difficult — try to reframe anxieties and discouragements by focusing on the fortunate circumstance you’re in. If you only have the option for in-person attendance, remember that your child is going to build social-emotional skills that aren’t really possible in distance learning environments, and that the transmission rate among kids is low.
Regardless of how your kids will be returning to school this fall, keep coming back to the temporary nature of this situation. Life won’t look like this forever, and until the clouds pass, remember that your child is likely flexing muscles of strength, patience, and resilience that you might see for years to come.