Parents agonize over back-to-school decisions amid pandemic

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. -- Joshua Claybourn is leaning toward sending his kindergarten daughter to in-person classes at a private school next month. Holly Davis’ sixth-grade daughter will learn online, though the family has not yet decided what to do for school for a teenage daughter who requires special accommodations for hearing problems and dyslexia and another who’s starting college.

As they decide how their children will learn this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, these parents are anxiously weighing the benefits of in-person instruction against the risks that schools could shut their doors again or that their children could contract the virus and pass it on.

“To say we are stressed might be an understatement,” said Davis, of Noblesville, Indiana, whose family is self-isolating after one of their daughters was exposed to COVID-19 at a cross country meet. “We’re being forced to make impossible decisions.”

Across the country, chaos and disarray have marked the start of the 2020 school year as families await decisions from district officials and, where they have a choice, make agonizing decisions over whether to enroll their children online or in person — often with incomplete or very little guidance from school leaders.

Parents who can work from home wonder if they’ll have enough time to help their children learn online. Some would need to line up child care. They have no idea if it will be safe to send their children to school — or whether the school doors will open at all or stay open if someone is diagnosed with the virus.

And many dread a return to the scenario that millions faced in the spring, when parents tried to work while their kids attended school — all while everyone was cooped up at home.

Claybourn said it’s not clear yet whether his local public school system in Newburgh, Indiana, would close if a someone had COVID-19. The private school he’s eyeing said it would close only the child’s classroom, and only for two to three weeks.

The public school also plans to offer an online option, but to Claybourn, an attorney who works outside of his home, “that is not a solution because ultimately requires someone with the kids all day.”

He also wants his daughter to have the routine, friendships and interactions with teachers that come with in-school learning.

“I will never be as good of a teacher as the trained professionals,” he said. “I understand the concern about kids contracting and spreading the virus, but for me the larger concern is the prospect of not being in school for an extended period.”

For Davis and her husband, health concerns and the threat that schools could close at a moment’s notice pushed them to choose online learning for their youngest daughter, rather than a hybrid program that would include some in-person learning.

Davis explained that she is at high risk for developing serious illness if she gets infected.

"Until they figure out what’s going on (with the virus), let’s take one kid out of the system,” she said.

In New York City, Macho Lara, an IT manager at a Brooklyn charter school, said he and his wife have agonized over what to do with their children, who are entering third and fifth grade at public schools.

Officials are tentatively offering the public school system's 1.1 million students the choice between continuing remote instruction or a hybrid model where children attend classes a few days out of the week.

“We still have no idea what’s going to happen in the fall,” said Lara, who said they’re trying to weigh health risks, the uncertainty of their work schedules, local transmission rates that seem to be inching up, their children’s need for friends and the impact on the social development of their 8-year-old, who also hates wearing a mask.

The family spent the spring cooped up in their two-bedroom apartment, working from home and trying to wait out the pandemic. Whatever happens in the fall, they fear the discomfort will continue.

Complicating the family’s decision, they’re getting little clarity from elected leaders. Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week he wouldn’t make a final decision on opening schools until just a few days before they are scheduled to restart in September. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the ultimate decision is up to him.

For Lara, there is no good choice.

“They’re both going to hurt,” he said. “It’s which is going to suck a little bit less.”