Back to School During a Pandemic: Are We Prepared?

It’s August – the month when many families are preparing to send their young adults to college and prepare young children to return to school. Families are typically shopping for school supplies, books, school uniforms/clothing, scheduling immunizations, dental and vision appointments, and more. Unlike years past, this year is different. We live in a pandemic – a moment that none of us has ever experienced and certainly were not prepared for. Living amid COVID-19 has been daunting, mind-changing, and, for many, depressing. We have been unable to spend time with extended family and friends due to social distancing. Vacations came to a halt, work stopped for many, and many have worked from home.

are parents prepared for remote learning chicago defenderThere has been a rise in COVID-19 cases among youth (the Centers for Disease Control reported there are over 380,000 cases as of August 6, 2020, and 90 children died from COVID-19 by the first week of August, representing less than 1% of the total deaths in the U.S.). Because these statistics continue to rise across the nation, the question is, “Are we prepared for back to school?” Local school districts have scrambled to put protocols into place for the possibility of children returning to in-school classes. However, parents have raised the stop sign and shouted, “Not so fast! – our children will not return to school until a vaccine has been approved.”

As this conversation takes place across the nation, Chicago Public Schools, for example, initially prepared a hybrid learning module that called for children returning to in-school classrooms twice a week and learning from home twice a week. However, many parents were against sending their children back to school without a more comprehensive plan to protect children from exposure to the COVID-19 virus. CPS recently asked parents to complete a questionnaire about the return to school. Based on the responses they received, CPS reversed their decision and decided students would remain home and participate in an online learning platform.

Unlike Chicago public school students, students attending schools in the Chicago Archdiocese will return to school in the fall, with everyone wearing masks and no changing of classrooms throughout the day. The Archdiocese has provided parents with a comprehensive plan that maps out protocols for social distancing, cleaning of spaces, infection control, and more. Private schools are individually deciding whether they will have in-class or at-home learning.

As we move closer to the beginning of the new school year, I surveyed several parents and teachers regarding returning to school. Below is a sampling of the questions and the responses:

If you are a teacher, what are your thoughts about returning to in-class learning vs. remote learning?

“I am relieved we will be returning remotely this year. I do not have confidence that all safety measures are in place in a sustainable way. I am primarily concerned about the ventilation system in my school because the school is over 100 years old. In addition, CPS does not have the best track record for keeping schools clean. I don’t think the sanitizing and disinfecting will be an ongoing system.”

“I believe remote learning is the safest option, although I would have been ok with a hybrid model.”

If you are a parent, what are your thoughts about your child’s return to in-class learning?

“I’m ok with hybrid learning, part of the week in class, part remote, as long as social distancing practices are in place, and the schools have increased sanitizing measures.”

“Children should not return to in-class learning at this time. This virus seems to be constantly mutating, and the unknowns are too risky. It is going to be a struggle; however, I could never forgive myself for putting my child in harm’s way.”

“I don’t feel comfortable that children can wear masks and social distance for an 8-hour day.”

“I was for the hybrid model and planned to send my child to school. I support the decision to go remote since COVID-19 numbers are increasing across the state. My child wants to return to school because this is their last year.”

“My child has sickle cell anemia; thus, remote learning is best for her.”

If you are a parent, what are your thoughts about your child participating in remote learning?

“While I will miss the socialization for my child, I think virtual/remote learning is a good temporary option to keep us safe, stop the spread of the virus, and continue learning.” Students are required to wear uniforms and participate in online classes at the same time as in-person learning. I also believe that in-home learning requires too much screen time for students.”

“I’m excited about the opportunity to have a hands-on approach with my child’s learning.”

“My daughter learns better when she is physically in school and interacting with her teacher and classmates. I feel that remote learning will have kids behind.”

“I’m for it just as long as there’s increased financial resources and support. However, with full remote learning, my husband and I will have a challenge working because our industries don’t have work from home options.”

chicago defender are parents prepared for remote learningParents struggle to educate their children while keeping their jobs. Many employers are not granting the option to work from home while children are learning remotely.

Of the nine parents and teachers interviewed, 44% work remotely; 33% work away from home, and 22% are unemployed or are on furlough due to COVID-19. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of the children of employed parents will participate in remote learning; 11% of them are undecided as to in-class vs. in-home remote education, and 11% are undecided. Forty-four percent (44%) of the employed parents can work from home every day; 44% do not have the option of working from home, and 11% can work from home 2-3 days per week. It is interesting to note that almost all employed parents (85%) either do not have a plan in place for someone to be with their children during in-home learning or face the possibility of having to resign their jobs at home with their children. Only 14% of the parents have solidified arrangements for someone to be with their children during at-home learning.

The surveyed parents also shared that they believe the schools are not prepared to welcome back students and that they have yet to take necessary steps to disinfect and sanitize schools. Several parents noted that they had not received information relating to the school year, such as class schedules and other information. Although one parent pointed out that the only information she has received for her child returning to school later this month is a supply list, another parent expressed confidence that teachers will be able to prepare their class schedules and lessons in time for the beginning of the school year. All parents believe that schools should be more intentional about providing information to parents throughout the school year to ensure parents have the tools they need to assist their children in learning remotely.

Parents have expressed they do not believe schools have taken necessary steps to disinfect and sanitize schools and improved ventilation, particularly in older school buildings. In addition, they have shared that as students return to class, all students’ safety and health should be a priority for school administrators and staff throughout the year.

We live in different times and have had to learn new ways of living and a new way of teaching our children and providing them with the best possible scenarios – whether on campus or at home. There is a lot of work to be done in the next few weeks to ensure that all children have the necessary books, computers, tablets, resources, and information. It is essential that parents are prepared to provide the required in-home support of their child’s learning experience and that schools offer additional resources that will make the transition from in-class to in-home learning as smooth as possible.

Donna Hammond is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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