As Students Prepare to Return to School, Parents and Teachers Grapple With A Host of Unknowns

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With the fall swiftly approaching and children preparing to return to school — virtually, part-time or in-person — much remains unknown for parents who desire to keep their children safe as COVID-19 continues to spike in several states across the country. 

For many parents, even in states like New York where the number of coronavirus infections has been trending downward, not knowing what is to come for their children’s academic year and how to plan for it is a source of anxiety.

Tori Frye, a medical professor who has a 13-year-old who goes to school in Washington Heights, said the first worry of parents is health and safety. Frye is also an elected parent member of Community Education Council for District 6 in the city.

“Do the schools have the resources to keep students and teachers safe and healthy? Anyone who has experience with the NY school system would answer no because the resources aren’t there,” Frye said. “The school system has been starved by the state of New York, so it’s not going to be safe.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced earlier in July that he would make a decision on whether to allow schools buildings to reopen in the fall by August 7. The state was set to provide guidelines for districts to adhere to and the districts are required to submit a plan to the state by July 31.

Frye said in her district, action plans are still not clear. The mother of two knows there will be a remote options, but she said the details of that are not clear. For many families if there is an option for in-person learning, the decision between the health and safety of their children or being able to provide for their children is a huge dilemma.

“This is violently unfair to working mothers in particular who the burden of figuring this out falls on, especially in communities of color,” Frye said. “They feel like they’re being asked to choose their children’s lives and their ability to provide a livelihood for them. How do you work if your kids aren’t in school and childcare options aren’t provided, and if you’re not convinced your children will be safe?”

In Colorado, which has had more than 41,000 cases of the coronavirus, district officials are also still setting in stone their plans for the school year and much of it remains up on the air. 

Taye Anderson, the Denver School Board director, said it’s going to be a “big issue” figuring out how to bring students back safely. For now, the district is delaying school for a week and then planning to bring kids back remotely, which will pose a problem for numerous parents.

“Most of the families that are telling us that they want to go into schools are Black and brown families that can’t afford to stay home,” Anderson said. “And the students that we see that are going to stay home are predominantly white families.”

Anderson is hoping that if the district continues remote learning, that childcare will be able to be provided for parents who need to work.

Sophia Santos, who has four school-aged children in Fosterville, Maryland, said her district will be 100 percent online come fall and that school officials will evaluate again in the second half of the school year. The remote learning transition has been hard for her children, although she thinks it’s the safer option.

“I have no problem doing remote learning, but I wish the teachers were more engaged,” Santos said. “The teachers were giving them busy work. It’s been hard. Luckily my fiancé and my daughter, who is 15, who is able to help. I’d rather keep them home and safe so they don’t catch COVID.”

“Until I know there is a federal plan by the government for schools and until this virus is almost near eradication, I am not going to be comfortable,” Santos said of sending her children to school. “I am not going use the kids as guinea pigs.”

Teachers and school staff also fear putting themselves at risk by returning to in-person learning. In some states, teachers have been writing wills as they prepare. While in some places, rumors of a teachers’ strike have been circulating.

This week Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, sued top state officials over a mandate to return to in-person schooling five days of the week in the fall and said they can’t require teachers to do so without first shrinking class sizes and giving teachers the protective gear they need.

“I wouldn’t blame any teacher for striking or refusing to show up,” Frye said.

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