An Additional COVID-19 School Year – Parents Consider Their Options

In the past year, Ali Langston taught high school algebra virtually while carrying his daughter, age 4. However, he managed to make it work in spite of its shortcomings. His experience as both an educator and parent provides him with insight into the challenges parents and caregivers face in facilitating virtual learning during the pandemic. Nevertheless, as the COVID-19 school year begins, he is more concerned about what lies ahead.

In a memorandum released on August 18, the Biden Administration emphasized the need to “ensure a safe return of our children to full-time, in-person school.” Within the last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Association of Pediatrics published recommendations that all adults and older children using school facilities should wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Schools across the country have taken steps to eliminate remote learning options, including New York City Public Schools (the largest district in the country). A large number of state board of education plans call for schools to offer full-time, traditional instruction. Considering the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant, parents must weigh their options.

Student response to virtual school rollouts last year was mixed. Langston’s 10-year-old twins — one of whom has Asperger’s syndrome and the other has Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — struggled to sit in front of a screen for six hours. A’Driane Nieves, the mother of 11- and 7-year-old autism-suffering boys says her children thrived in an environment where they learned at home. The eldest son of Nieves, who has ADHD, was buried under a mountain of schoolwork-despite the fact that, under his educational plan, he and Nieves were supposed to be informed.

Langston and Nieves were looking forward to in-person school because remote learning was difficult for them and they couldn’t meet their needs, but that excitement has faded. Taking a traditional approach to education ignores the needs of students who may thrive in a virtual or hybrid environment. It also glosses over rising COVID-19 cases among teenagers. In the first week of August, kids made up 15 percent of all new COVID-19 cases across the United States, reported the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. Jason Salemi, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health says that, despite the alarming statistics, “severe illness risks for children are much lower than those for other age groups.”

Taking away options is not the answer, I believe. I think a pandemic, particularly one affecting education, has given us many opportunities to help families.”

Parents struggling to decide how best to proceed may find little comfort in this context. My parents concur that school administrators and legislators fail students by limiting options for education instead of expanding them. In Nieves’ opinion, eliminating options won’t help us. During a pandemic, families had more options in terms of education.

The situation is even more complicated because some states circumvent the mask recommendations for students. According to a video posted on SnapChat, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida overturned a local school board’s decision to enact mask mandates, and he even threatened the salary of those who refused to comply. In response, the U.S. appealed the ruling. After warning five other states, the Department of Education is investigating mask ban mandates. Despite this, compliance is hard to enforce even in districts where masking is common. CDC research indicates mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for children under 12 may not be sufficient, as a California teacher who took her mask off in class infected over half of her class as she read aloud.

As such, Dr. Salemi and other health professionals point out that mitigation methods must go beyond mask wearing. A healthy environment requires sufficient ventilation, explains Dr. Salemi. “Are we opening outdoor doors and windows [or] using fans? Can we make the HVAC system work so that it takes in as much air as possible from outside?” asks Dr. Salemi. Would it be possible to roll up the windows if children were riding on buses to help circulate and ventilate?

Without straightforward prevention strategies, parents must contend with varying state and local political climates regarding prevention. The Agard-Stricklands might take their 8-year-old daughter out of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Agard-Strickland has misgivings about the ability of CPS, the third-largest school system in the nation, to quickly reverse their decision on in-person-only instruction if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. In an interview with the Washington Post, she told us that she and her family need a choice from the public school system, noting that removing her daughter from school will be financially burdensome. According to her, the safety net is failing.

Parents face more than just concerns about child safety. Additionally, the question arises: what happens if a parent falls ill? If either Langston or Nieves contract COVID-19, they will both be at high risk for severe disease. For them, the stakes are incredibly high.

The Langstons hired a tutor in October to supervise their children’s virtual learning while they worked. Another school year of COVID-19 has begun, so they no longer have that option. Because of his health problems and the educational needs of his children, he is contemplating quitting his job. In Langston’s words, “I know that everyone can’t do it easily. I won’t tell you I can.”. If keeping them safe really means paying my bills, I’ll make sure they get paid.”

Although officials do not expect the coronavirus vaccine for children under age 12 to be authorized until mid-winter, the parents who have shared their stories plan on immunizing their children when the shot becomes available. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, supports a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for schoolchildren in the United States.

While parents like Agard-Strickland, Langston, and Nieves wait for safety to return to schools, they hold their breath.

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