back to school

No One Knows What to Do About School

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In some parts of the country, kids have already gone back to school. In others, schools, administrators, and parents are still scrambling to figure out exactly what back to school will mean this fall. Seventeen conversations with parents included worries about endangering their families, worries about endangering the teachers and staff members at their children’s schools, and worries about the future of public education. One single mother stressed that many parents’ plans are determined by their privileges and individual circumstances. “Everybody obviously wants what is best for their kid,” she said. “And what’s best for one kid is not necessarily best for another kid.”

Below, 17 parents from across the country on their fall plans.

“Not everybody can keep their kids home.”

Rapid City, SD
3 children (ages 12, 6, 4)

I get so frustrated with the either/or divided camps of parents and teachers who say, “We absolutely just cannot send them to school. Schools are not day cares.” Well, not everybody can keep their kids home. I know quite a few people who care about their children’s health, but they work! I don’t think either camp is uncaring or unfeeling. I’m going to be teaching five college classes from home, and it is really hard to do with a 12-year-old who has special needs, a 6-year-old who would be doing first grade virtually, and a 4-year-old who is pretty much a full-time job in and of itself.

My eldest is 12. She has autism. She needs a lot of services, and those are really only available in person. It’s really hard to do that on a Zoom call. She doesn’t like Zoom calls. It’s hard enough to get her to say “Hello.” Maybe the in-person school could be for these certain groups of kids that are high needs that have no other option. But I just don’t see those coherent efforts coming together to make decisions for us or to help us. The creative solutions are missing. I love my school district, but they need funding to do these other options.

“We’d consider putting my daughter in school if masks were mandated.”

Tullahoma, Tennessee
2 children (ages 7, 11 months)

One of the things that frustrates me is the entire mask issue. We’d consider putting my daughter in school if masks were mandated. I think that there’s such a stigma in this area for those who do wear masks. It would concern me to send my daughter to school without it being mandated for fear of her being ridiculed. And she’s so good about wearing them. She has no problems. Kids are adaptable. My child is much more adaptable than I am with this stuff. She’s not worried if it matches her outfit. She doesn’t care what she looks like. She’s beautiful and doesn’t have to worry about any of that. But we, as grown-ups, are the ones putting the stink on it. Because of what these kids are hearing in their households, it worries me to put her in school without it being a mandate across the board.

“I’m a single mom, so I’m doing this by myself. It’s not like I have somebody else at home with me that could help out if I’m working.”

The Bronx
4 kids (ages 7, 5, 3, 1)

I live in Riverdale in the Bronx, but I don’t have Riverdale money. There are a lot of parents who are like, “We’re forming pods. And we’re going to pay the teacher’s salary.” I can’t pay another teacher’s salary on my teacher’s salary. I still consider myself lucky because I am working. So I’m better off than a lot of other people, but my kids are already behind, and all these other parents are forming pods and hiring these teachers. My kids are going to fall even further off the educational cliff. Everybody obviously wants what is best for their kid. And what’s best for one kid is not necessarily best for another kid … I’m really stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I’m a single mom, so I’m doing this by myself. It’s not like I have somebody else at home with me that could help out if I’m working.

The reality is, if they go back, they’re not going to get the socialization at school either because they’re going to be sitting at their desks all day long. They’re not going to be able to sit next to each other in the cafeteria. They’re not going to get the same level of engagement with their teachers. I think their socialization is still going to suffer, just in a different way. The reason why I picked my kids’ school is because they do drama and dance and drumming and these big schoolwide events once a month. None of that is happening now for obvious reasons. In some ways, it’s going to be more heartbreaking and more confusing to be in the space where those things used to happen.

“If this is the year where she watches a lot of TV, it’s fine.”

Albany, CA
1 child (age 7)

It’s impossible to work unless she’s watching TV. I’m like, If this is the year where she watches a lot of TV, it’s fine. Frankly, my daughter in particular is super-happy to be spending time with us. She hasn’t really asked to have playdates. As time goes on, maybe that will get worse, but she’s been doing okay.

I kind of wish the teachers would strike if they’re asked to go back to school, and I would support them if they do. I saw this tweet where someone was like, “Who cares if kids are behind? What does that even mean? I want my kids alive.” I just feel like that should be the guidepost. It’s not acceptable to sacrifice people’s lives just to — for what goal?

“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that they can’t go to school for the next two weeks because their teacher died.”

Marin County, CA
3 children (ages 12, 10, 4)

The bottom line is we all want our kids to be safe, but there’s definitely a divide. The people that think kids going back to school is the most important thing, I feel like they’re not thinking about the teachers and the administration. These teachers have families too. Especially because we live in Marin County, and it’s very, very, very difficult to live there, and it’s incredibly expensive … not working, you’re definitely at risk of losing your home. So I get that, and I’m sympathetic to it. But at the same time, I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that they can’t go to school for the next two weeks because their teacher died. The idea of “I have to keep my job. I need to make money. It’s not fair to me” is really clouding a lot of people’s vision of the big picture.

“We could have been doing this work all along.”

Boston, MA
2 children (ages 13, 5)

I have one ear tuned in, but I’ve made a choice to take a few steps back, just so we can have more space as a family. But I’m also trying to sustain and have thoughtful conversations around racial justice and how that relates to our school environment. I think some households might have the privilege to choose one conversation over the other. But as a Black female raising multiracial Black children, we have to stay tuned in to both conversations: what’s going on logistically around the coronavirus and school in the fall, and racial justice and the conversations we’re having at our school and with our family, our church, our extended community.

I appreciate that people are listening, but I also have a frustration of like, “We could have been pacing ourselves on this dialogue and not have to have it in this fast and furious and panicked way while we’re also having a pandemic. We could have been doing this work all along.”

“It’s not in my DNA to teach.”

Medway, MA
2 children (ages 9, 5)

We’re both [at home] full time every day, which is a small blessing. Or not so small, I should say. But the supervision and assistance with remote learning is something that I don’t relish at all. It’s not in my DNA to teach. My mom was a public-school teacher for a long time, but I’m not good at it. I’m really concerned about the impact that that would have as a parent, if I’m the one having to reinforce and discipline and make sure they do their schoolwork all day long.

The flip side is: I don’t want to send them back to school because I don’t think the schools are prepared. It’s not their fault. The physical enhancements they’d need to make to the building are expensive and time-consuming and haven’t been started, to the best of my knowledge. What I see happening is: “Oh, well, six feet is what is recommended, but we’re not going to be able to do that, so let’s call it three.” What? You can’t make up new rules. We don’t have the science that would lead us to believe that these are safe choices. We have budgetary restrictions, and the safety of our children shouldn’t be threatened because we don’t have the money to do the right thing.

“I don’t know that, as a 13-year-old boy, he quite understands that school is going to look a lot different this year.”

Wake Forest, NC
2 children (ages 15, 13)

I really worry about the ability of our teachers. We’re not just putting our children possibly at risk but our teachers and our teaching staff. How are they going to handle it? Even if the kids are rotating weeks, our teachers are still there every day.

My middle son is transitioning into a new school for eighth grade, so he wants to meet new people. So he’s like, “Mom, I want to go to school. I want to be with people.” Unfortunately, I don’t know that, as a 13-year-old boy, he quite understands that school is going to look a lot different this year, even if we do go back in. We’re talking about eating lunches in their classrooms and possibly not transitioning for classes.

“What happens when you create these little cliques with your kids?”

San Francisco, CA
2 children (ages 5, 15 months)

My daughter got into a public school that we’re really happy with. Until fairly recently, we were extremely pleased with how it was working out — excited about meeting families in the community, supporting public school. Fortunately, for reasons that make sense, the San Francisco school district is not opening schools in person. So this has really thrown us for a loop. Right now, we’re hearing a lot about pods and trying to figure out what a pod is, and can we get into a pod, and what would that entail? My hope is really pinned on some of the summer camps that might get permission to open up in the fall.

But the other thing that’s come up very strongly in San Francisco is the equity aspect of: Well, what happens when you create these little cliques with your kids? Are you open to kids from other backgrounds? How do you make pods more inclusive when pods are already geared toward you trying to find people who live similar lifestyles to you? Are you going to get even more segregation in a city that’s already segregated? These are important conversations; I just don’t think anyone’s found a solution to them.

“Why are we even having to ask teachers to do that?”

Berkeley, CA
2 children (age 5)

Realistically, for the time being, they are going to be with us at home. We’ve heard back from the school district that it is closed … and that that won’t change until things change with respect to the vaccine and all that. Until that changes, they’ll probably be in remote schooling. There’s nothing ideal about that at all. We would love for them to be back in school. They’re not thrilled about it either. Actually, sometimes they kind of like it because they get to play on their iPad, and, you know, that’s not so bad for them sometimes. And they get to hang out with their parents. That’s fun, sort of.

I think it’s a pretty straightforward decision at this point. It’s worse now than it was when schools first closed. I’m worried about their socialization and their educational development, but it seems straightforward. I’m glad I don’t have to put the teachers in a position where they feel uncomfortable about going to work. It doesn’t seem fair for them. I don’t think it’s right that we’re in a position right now that teachers are being asked to put themselves at risk. Why take the risk, and why are we even having to ask teachers to do that?

“I’m thinking we might be doing some serious damage.”

Essex Fells, NJ
4 children (ages 14, 11, 9, 4)

My bigger kids were presented with the option of a full five days of school, which is extremely rare at this point. It’s because we’re very small. We have a lot of grounds — we have a lot of grass, courtyard, that sort of thing — and we have a very generous parent population. With those organizations, we are able to do a little extra. We are providing tents for teachers to work outside as much as possible. The school is providing full-time day care for free for teachers whose children are not in school full time. They’re going in with full face shields that the school purchased for them. But, again, we have that funding that other schools don’t have.

A big concern of mine is maybe not my own children who are socializing but others who are not: What is going to happen psychologically and emotionally here? How are we managing those children? It’s not that I’m not worried about the coronavirus; it’s just I’m looking past that for the kids, and I’m thinking we might be doing some serious damage. We might have kids who do not know how to share. We might be starting some really big problems socially here. Are they going to be afraid to go near each other?

“That’s the only way we can support our family of five: by both of us working.”

Rockwall, TX
3 children (ages 12, 7, 7 weeks)

I’m a registered nurse on a COVID unit, and I just had a baby. I’ve seen what this disease can do to people, and even if it doesn’t affect us … I’m worried about spreading it. If the kids are able to spread it, then who could they spread it to? Could they spread it to my mom or my dad, who both have health issues? When I get home, I take off all of my clothes in the garage before I walk inside. The first thing I do is stick my clothes in the washing machine, and I don’t talk to anybody or look at anybody. I just go straight into the shower.

My seventh-grader has ADHD, and I think, for him, the only option for us — I mean, they’re still going to be required to do state testing, and I’m not going to be able to prepare him for that, since I’m going to be working at least three days a week. He really needs that in-person instruction because of his ADHD. He will probably be going in person. If I could keep him home and trust I would be able to prepare him for state testing, I would totally keep him home. But I don’t feel like I can, and that kind of makes me feel guilty because I don’t want him to be exposed. But with my second-grader, because they’re not required to wear masks, I think we’re looking at keeping her home. Right now, my husband is staying at home, but we do need him to get a job soon. Once he does get a job, we probably will have to transition to in person, which I don’t want to do, but that’s the only way we can support our family of five: by both of us working.

“We’ve been self-isolating since the beginning of March.”

Dallas, GA
2 children (ages 9, 5)

Our kids are virtual learning. My kids are in elementary school, so it’s pretty basic. They go to class; they do gym. It’s not as complicated as middle school or high school.

We’ve been self-isolating since the beginning of March. Our kids have not been to the playground. We haven’t taken them in stores. Kids are really resilient in and of themselves. Every once in a while, they say they miss friends. And if numbers start going back down, we do have a few friends who we know have been taking things seriously. I’m not really worried about the social aspect for the kids. My son has Facebook Messenger for kids, so he can go on his tablet and chat with a couple of his best friends. They play Roblox. It’s not the same as in person, but he can still talk to people.

“I see my son’s anxiety growing.”

Minneapolis, MI
1 child (age 8)

My son’s on the autism spectrum. Distance learning was really hard. I felt like everyone was struggling, but I think, for him, probably the struggle was more, because he wasn’t receiving the types of interventions that he normally does. He’s a very social child, and I feel like it kind of helps with his depression and anxiety.

We all have to look at our kid and think: Okay. How much risk can I be willing to take versus the cost here? There’s no winning. There’s no winning here. There’s no perfect solution.

I never would want to put teachers in any kind of danger. I’m such a strong supporter of teachers and the difficult job they have to do. At the same time, I see my son’s anxiety growing. Even when he can socialize, it’s like he’s forgetting some of those skills. And I see him going through a lot of depression that I’m just really concerned, during these formative years, is going to last a lifetime. My personal hope is that we could figure out a way to do a hybrid model that would have the least amount of risk for teachers.

“We definitely do not want to send our children back.”

Dallas, TX
3 children (ages 12, 11, 8)

[Quitting my job] is something I need to mentally prepare for. I really don’t want to go back, honestly, and teach. One thing I’m very fortunate and grateful to have is my mom. She’s a retired teacher, so we’re going to be working together to keep my daughter at home if I decide to continue with my job and go face-to-face. It’s an emotional, hard decision. A financially hard decision as well.

We got through a whole quarter and part of another just online, and I would like to see that for an extended period of time beyond September. That’s how I feel like it should go. I have three sister-friends, and their children go to the same school as my daughter, and we’re just kind of on the fence. We’re working on how we can maintain our jobs or some income and support each other. We definitely do not want to send our children back.

“Every decision that I make is a risk-benefit analysis.”

Bay Area, CA
3 children (ages 10, 7, 4)

Being a nurse, I’ve dealt with some coronavirus. We were expecting a lot more, and it ended up being kind of underwhelming. I think it’s probably made me less scared because part of my job is seeing people sick, and I see people sick from hundreds of different things — from influenza, from pneumonia, from urinary-tract infections, from car accidents, from surgery, from gallbladder issues, kidney issues, cancer, on and on and on.

The coronavirus is a very scary disease. I do not want to downplay it at all, but it’s one of many, many dangers that exist in the world. To me, getting on the highway and taking my kids to school, that’s a higher risk activity than having them learn in a classroom with masks. Every decision that I make is a risk-benefit analysis. And in terms of my kids going to school, to me that 100 percent outweighs the risk. There’s no question in my mind.

“The only positive aspect about remote learning is that it keeps people safe.”

East Haven, CT
1 child (age 5)

Coming from someone who has taught other people’s children professionally for years … remote learning is next to impossible. They don’t have the attention span. There’s no way to make Zoom classes interesting enough to grab these kids. My daughter only had Zoom class three times a week while school was in session, and even that was a struggle. There’d be crying and whining and fussing. And she’s only 4, so I’m not fighting with her about homework or long-term assignments. The only positive aspect about remote learning is that it keeps people safe, hopefully, from transmitting the disease or catching it. But it’s an awful way to learn and teach.

My daughter would be starting kindergarten this fall. I don’t have a lot of faith that that’s actually going to happen. It’s all up in the air, and it’s driving us crazy. At this point, I wish they would just cancel in-person schooling until at least January. It’s an awful decision to make. But stop putting parents — take the decision away from parents. There are so many options now that it feels like none of them are correct. And I think if the schools were basically just nationally shut down for a few months, everybody would be in the same boat.

No One Knows What to Do About School