As schools plan to reopen, California parents are asking themselves if it is better to send their children back to school and risk them getting the coronavirus or keeping them at home to do distance learning.
School districts across California are creating plans to reopen. Some of the ideas set out by the California Department of Education include students attending school in person two days a week or every other week and doing distance learning the other days. In some cases, districts are planning to allow families to decide whether to send their children to school or continue with distance learning from home.
“If I could bubble wrap them, I’d do that,” said Pavanish Nirula, of San Jose, whose 15-year-old daughter will be starting the 11th grade this fall, while his 17-year-old son goes off to college.
Since bubble-wrapping isn’t practical, Nirula is trying to be pragmatic. He’s not sure yet whether his daughter’s high school will have in-person classes, but he’s open to it if the school and teachers believe it will be safe.
Weighing the risks and benefits is overwhelming and has left many parents uncertain about what to do, especially since school district plans are still fluid.
Questions and increase anxiety
“This is worse than having a baby. You don’t know what day it’s going to come; you don’t know what to prepare for; you don’t know if it’s a boy or girl,” said Candise Scott, whose 11-year-old twins attend school in Los Angeles Unified.
Amy Pharis lives in Fresno and has a daughter who will enter fourth grade in the fall.
“She wants to go back to school, and I want to go back to work, but I’m still cautious to this day,” she said. “Whatever Fresno Unified comes up with, I’m hoping and trusting that it’ll be in the best interest for everyone. I’m just really torn. I want her to go back, but part of me thinks it won’t be safe.”
If her daughter stays home to do distance learning, though, Pharis would probably have to negotiate a new work schedule. She works as a hiring manager for Banana Republic and has been off work for the past three months, first on furlough, then on leave.
A nationwide USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 6 out of 10 parents with at least one child in grades K-12 said they would likely pursue at-home learning instead of sending their children back to school in the fall.
Several California districts have sent out surveys to parents to see what they prefer.
A Fresno Unified survey from early June shows three-fourths of parents said they preferred in-person classes with health and safety rules in place, and one-fourth preferred distance learning. A Long Beach Unified survey done in late May and early June found that 59 percent of parents said they were extremely interested in all instruction happening at school, and 27 percent said they were extremely interested in all online. Half of those who preferred online said they based their response on health and safety concerns. In Elk Grove Unified, an early June survey showed 57 percent of parents said they would prefer instruction only happening on campus next year, 13 percent preferred online only and 29 percent preferred a mix of online and in-person classes. The district is following up with another survey to get more detailed feedback.
In-person learning and social interaction outweigh the health risks for some parents.
“My kid will be lined up at the gate to go back. He needs that academically and socially,” said Sacramento mom Renee Webster-Hawkins, whose son has dyslexia.
Sharon Wheeler, who lives in Folsom, east of Sacramento, agrees that the structure of a normal school environment is better for her son, who is going into fourth grade and has dyslexia. But she said distance learning has been better for her middle-school daughter, who has attention deficit disorder (ADD).
“For her, I’m hoping for more of a hybrid model.” Wheeler said. “I want her to be able to go and socialize with friends. I want her to have a connection with her teachers. But, at the same time, for getting her schoolwork done, she seems to be happier when she’s in her room.”
Karen Lattin is the mother of a soon-to-be sophomore in Morgan Hill Unified, near San Jose.
“I think even the face-to-face contact with the teachers is important, and having a little more personal interaction that you don’t get over video,” she said.
Petaluma mom Loan Nguyen said for her, the benefits of her children being around their peers outweighs the health risks. Her two daughters, 3 and 5 years old, have been back at preschool for a couple of weeks. At first, she was worried — she even sent them with their own Clorox wipes their first day back. But after seeing all the precautions the preschool is taking, she is less worried.
Nguyen said since the return to preschool, she’s noticed a jump in her younger daughter’s vocabulary. She’s hoping her older daughter will be able to attend kindergarten in person at Saint Vincent de Paul, a Catholic school, in the fall.
“I am weighing the risks, but I feel like mentally, for them, it’s just better to be around people,” Nguyen said.
Concerned about kids getting sick at school
The health risk to children is the main reason that other parents plan to keep them home.
“I don’t want to think about my daughters going to school and getting sick. It truly scares me,” said Mireya Pacheco, of Los Angeles. Her daughters are 17, 10 and 9 years old. “When we go to the store, they can’t handle having a mask on for just one or two hours outside the house. I don’t think they could have a mask on all day at school.”
Pacheco wants to keep her daughters at home to do distance learning, but she would like teachers to do more live teaching, and she wants Los Angeles Unified to give parents more resources and information to help their children.
Hildeliza Galicia, mother of a 17-year-old and a 9-year-old in south Los Angeles, said she is planning to stay home and help her children do distance learning, even if that means quitting her job helping people clean and organize their houses.
“If it’s going to cost my job for me to protect my kids and stay safe, I would do it,” Galicia said. “That’s the way I would like it until everything is back to normal, and we have a cure or we have a vaccine for us to be protected.”
Others are considering home schooling on their own. Sacramento mother Rashida Dunn-Nasr has four children, ages 8 to 13. She plans to try distance learning again in the fall, but she said if it is the same as it was this spring, she plans to home school. She said communication with the school district during the shelter-in-place order has been difficult. One of her children’s Chromebooks, which the school provided, would not connect to the internet, and her third grader was suspended from distance learning after the district said she was sending a friend too many online messages.
“I don’t feel comfortable letting them go into a school and trust that the administration, that has not really protected the kids and wasn’t really prepared, will protect the kids in class. I feel like it’s impossible to guarantee to parents that they won’t fall ill,” Dunn-Nasr said.
Many parents do not have a choice. If they have to work, and they have no other place to send their children, their children will have to go back to school or child care.
Ariana Beltran, an electrician’s apprentice from Santa Rosa, said she would homeschool her 6-year-old son if she could, but she cannot afford to do that.
“I don’t really have a choice because I work and I’m a single parent,” Beltran said. “He has to wear a mask while he’s at school, and I’m a little worried about that because it’s going to be hot. I’m worried about him catching it. There’s actually a lot of worries.”
Oakland mother Judith Mendez said she would love to have her sons, 11 and 13, return to school, but she doesn’t believe the school district will have the funds to pay for all the modifications needed to open safely.
She’s also worried about the mental health effects on children returning to school with social distancing.
“This is going to be really traumatic for the kids,” Mendez said. “First of all, they lived through this, and now if they go back, they won’t be able to play with each other or hug each other. That’s going to be a catastrophe.”
* EdSource reporter Sydney Johnson contributed to this article.