Parents everywhere are struggling with the decision of whether or not send their children back to in person learning. One mom weighs the pros and cons.
At my annual eye exam the other day, my optometrist stopped mid-exam and announced, “I just decided to send my daughter back to school full-time. The school asked us to decide in just three days. I agonized over the decision, but finally decided that I should. I just don’t know if I made the right decision.”
As a frontline health care worker whose patients included many seniors, Dr. M had always exercised extreme caution when it came to her patients. Her office had remained closed at the start, following the CDC and state guidelines when it did finally reopen, with limited hours and staggered appointments.
She revealed that she hadn’t had her hair cut at a salon since the start of the pandemic, because she was so worried of exposing herself to the virus. Even though she had received the vaccination at the start with the first wave of health care workers, she still was hesitant. “I have a lot of vulnerable patients,” she said. “I don’t want to endanger them in any way.”
Although her actions might be considered by some as overly cautious, her concerns regarding the return to school for her eight-year-old daughter were not. Many parents are facing this same dilemma as schools plan to open up for the final months before summer begins. In fact, I was struggling with the same issue, with my own daughter—and my daughter is 17 years old.
Let’s Get Back to Normal
The push to return to normalcy and reopen the schools has been controversial since the start of the pandemic when schools first closed (check out this helpful timeline). At that time, few people would have argued that virtual school for the K-12 demographic bested in-person learning. The concerns were many—from the need for students to have in-person social interactions with their teachers and perhaps more importantly, with their peers, to the significant disparity in learning among lower-income students, many of whom had limited or no access to the internet, a computer, and a secure space at which to study.
Another concern was supervision. While some parents were allowed to telework from home, enabling them to be with their homebound children (which in itself posed another distinct challenge), others were forced to take extended leave or at worst, quit their jobs to stay at home with their kids, with women bearing the brunt of this (see this, for example). Still others continued their work outside of their home, compelled to come up with creative alternatives for childcare.
Even Dr. M ended up having to bring her youngest to work with her, although she could leave her oldest, who was 15, at home by himself. “I don’t even know what she’s doing half the time,” she said. “I can’t watch her and tend to my patients.” Of course, she owns the practice at which she works, so she has the chance to do so; however, few parents are able to bring their child to their workplace and have them hang around for a full day, much less every day for months at a time.
The Long Term Impacts
Although necessary to protect teachers and students from COVID-19, closing schools was truly a lose-lose situation all around—a loss for teachers, for students, for parents and families. But like many people, I thought when it happened in March 2020 that it was for the short term—a temporary but unfortunate setback. Now, a year later, we’re just beginning to understand the long-term impact of extended school closures on students’ academic wellbeing as well as their overall mental health.
In a recent study by Brown University, researchers projected that student learning gains would be adversely impacted by the pandemic, with reading at just 63-68% of what it would have been during a typical school year, and math at about 37-50%. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. They estimated that the top one-third of students would likely make gains in reading.
In terms of mental health, studies indicate that those who are already vulnerable, including children with special needs or mental illness, suffer the most when their schedules are disrupted and they’re denied the opportunities to learn coping mechanisms in a school setting. All in all, discouraging news for kids who have been stuck with online learning for the long-haul.
Weighing the Options
Now with vaccination efforts in full swing and the CDC encouraging a return to in-person school for all students, you would think that we would welcome the opportunity with open arms. Our kids back on campus having a “normal” school day? No question. Teachers able to speak directly with their students and to make sure that they’re fully engaged in the learning process? Of course! Our kids able to interact with live people and deal with “real world” problems? Heck, yes.
But many have lingering concerns about the spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated (which is most students at this point). Dr. M’s concern that her daughter might get sick or might bring home the virus to her and her family is not unfounded, although perhaps not very likely. It’s a concern that many teachers and parents share as well.
For most with vulnerable family members at home or who are themselves high-risk, it’s a no-brainer. The cost is far too high to return to in-person school at this point. But for those like Dr. M and me, who must weigh the risks of sending our kids to school against the risks of not sending our kids to school—the decision is much more fraught.
A friend of mine in California—a state that has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic–has a son who has been struggling with online learning. He’s always had some trouble engaging with his peers, but now is in danger of failing the 8th grade. But sending him back to school isn’t so self-evident. With the majority of parents opting to keep their kids at home, the classroom would be like a ghost town. Whether or not the school setting—so vastly different from what it would be typically—would be a better place for him than home is hard to say.
So where does one go to find the answer? Well, Google, it seems. I bet perhaps one of the more Googled questions today is “Should I send my kid back to in-person school?” A whole list of results come up, with the top hit being an article by the CDC outlining the questions that you should ask when considering your child’s return to in-person learning. It features a helpful checklist to help a parent weigh the risks and benefits.
But still, even armed with this, I probably did what many parents like Dr. M and my friend did—ask everyone else what they were doing. I’d even ask my daughter, “What is so-and-so going to do? What about so-and-so?” I’d ask my sisters with kids. I’d ask strangers in line at the grocery store. The answers were always different. I finally acknowledged that this pandemic is not a one-size-fits-all situation, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the return to in-person education.
From One Parent to Another
What I can offer is these three major considerations when making your decision:
1. Learn as much as you can about your school’s return-to-school plan.
What measures does the school have in place to ensure that your child will be safe and healthy? How is learning going to be adapted, if at all, to this new situation? How different will it be for the kids who stay at home versus the ones who are in the classroom? Also important to consider is how much interaction will students be allowed and how this figures into yours and your child’s needs.
2. You know your child best.
How has she been doing during this pandemic? Has she been thriving, barely surviving, somewhere in between? How does she feel about returning to school? Are there other issues that need to be taken into consideration, like her mental health? What’s her own rationale for wanting to go back/not wanting to go back to school? Is she capable of monitoring her own safety at school?
3. Gauge your family’s situation.
What does your family need to make life work at this point? Do you need your child to be in a supervised setting that you just can’t accommodate?
Whatever you decide, know that there is no one “right” answer. It’s true that most people are concerned about their children’s academic progress and mental well-being, but the “best” solution to the problem is the one that you make based on your own situation.
A recent National Public Radio study revealed that nearly half of parents, regardless of race or ethnicity, are concerned that their children have fallen behind during this pandemic. Still, in that same study, nearly 30% of parents said they are likely to continue with remote learning indefinitely. The results are in contrast to what we’ve come to understand as a general public push to have kids return to school. What they do reveal is that if you decide to keep your child at home, for whatever reason, you’re not alone.
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.