It’s OK to not be OK-- Thoughts on Next School Year
August 1, 2020
As we are all preparing for the start of the new school year, we are inundated with information about how schools will operate, what choices we have for our students’ schooling, safety protocols, technology expectations, whether it’s safe to send kids back to school, and a whole host of other stuff that fills our inboxes and our television screens.
Throughout all of this, parents and guardians have had to filter through this information and use it to decide ultimately how their student will be educated. This process has not been easy, and on any given day, it’s very possible that parents and guardians have changed their minds. There are so many things to consider, like safety, family convenience, parent/guardian work schedules, consistency, the student experience, transportation… the list goes on and on. Each of us wonders how to prioritize the multitude of factors that go into this decision, and as soon as we think we have it figured out, we hear something that changes our mind. None of us wants to put our children in harm’s way or jeopardize their health and safety. However, it is also hard to determine how risky sending them to school really is. Also, we have to consider the risks of not sending them to their mental health, learning growth, and the realities of who will supervise and support them. For many, it feels like we have to make the impossible choice between working to support the family’s basic needs or keeping our kids safe.
We first think about the students. Being away from classrooms impacted each student differently. For some, virtual learning allowed them to flourish and they seemed to be more engaged than before, having been relieved from some of the social pressures of being in school. For others, it took a toll on their mental health, and parents saw kids regress and act out in different ways. The issue of effectiveness comes up as well, since none of us has a lot of real data to evaluate how well our students learned and if they continued to grow in the ways we expected. There is also a big difference between remote learning, which is what students had last year as a last-minute response to a crisis, and virtual learning, a more carefully planned approach designed to be sustained over the course of the school year (which is what students should have this year in an online setting). Do we feel ready to be in classrooms with other students? Schools have put a great deal of effort into making the school building as safe as possible. They really want the kids to come back and return to some semblance of normal. Currently, available data tells us that kids under the age of 10 tend to get the virus less often and tend not to spread it to others. Data from school re-openings around the world says that keeping students in a single cohort (with the same peers) rather than mixing up cohorts tends to keep the virus from spreading. However, this data is based on somewhat limited experience, in different places with different laws/policies and does not speak to the diversity of the population sampled. We have no idea if it will hold true for our children, in our classrooms, and in our city. We also know that a few students who attended summer school in-person have tested positive for the virus, which is not very surprising given the statistics and knowing that there are many asymptomatic carriers. However, we do not know how these kids are doing and what impact, if any, their illness has on their teachers or family members. We also do not know if there are other kids or teachers who will test positive and what impact, if any, that will have on the overall health of the community. We hear people scanning the death rate and claiming that because it is low, it is ok to send kids to school. However, while that may be what the data says, having Covid-19 hardly seems like a pleasant experience, and we do not yet know any long-term effects other than death. As parents, this factor is especially important as our kids are young and none of us wants to saddle them with any long-term health issues. Suggestions about frequent testing for students and teachers are being offered, which could help to limit the spread and predict when there might be outbreaks. However, testing itself can be a traumatic event, and subjecting children to that on a regular basis feels wrong as well. All of that said, it’s very hard to know what to believe and how to feel. It’s a Catch-22; there are some signs that students, especially younger ones, can be safe in schools under strong health and safety guidelines. However, as adults who care for these young people, it’s very hard to ever put them in any risky situation, and there is still much that is unknown. How do we prioritize health/safety versus mental health versus academic achievement versus stability?
Next, we begin to think about our own needs as adults and how our lives are impacted by having or not having kids in school. For some, the last few months have been an attempt to balance working from home with supervising kids, supporting learning, and filling in the gaps when they need extra help. For others, it has been a struggle to figure out how to survive when one cannot work and has little to no income. Costs for basic needs -- food, housing, medical attention -- continued, regardless of how income was impacted. And even if one could work, the quality of that work was not always consistent, nor was a work schedule when kids needed to be tended to. Many parents were left feeling inadequate to manage both the parenting and professional side of things. It was also tiring and draining; we love these kids, but attending to their every need 24-7 while also keeping up with our own needs was a lot to handle for the six months between the school building closures and when the new school year begins. Are we prepared and do we have the stamina to do it again? Merely acknowledging our own needs can evoke feelings of guilt and is not something many of us feel comfortable sharing. Just as we think to ourselves, Ok, let’s give in-person schooling a go, we read or hear a new piece of information that challenges our decision and makes us doubt our choice. Is it worth the risk, we ask ourselves. Questions and thoughts swirl around in our heads: Perhaps virtual education will be better now that we can plan for it and have some practice. I can change my schedule so that I am available to the kids from 8am-1pm and work from 2pm-10pm. I can hire someone to help me (never mind if I can afford it or actually find anyone). I will find a new job that allows me to work from home and have a flexible schedule. Maybe, I will not work at all, and we will change our lifestyle to survive on what we have because I have to keep my kids safe, no matter what. We rationalize our way into one choice or the other, not ever feeling fully satisfied with the decision and also experiencing a tinge of guilt because we allowed our own needs to creep into the decision-making.
There is no right answer. Parents and guardians have a difficult choice to make, and many of us have constant feelings of anxiety and fear because we don’t know what to do and frustration with ourselves because we change our minds on almost a daily basis. It’s ok. Each family has to consider its own circumstances, options, and priorities in order to do what is best for them. Know that you are not alone; this internal struggle is happening inside of everyone who cares for kids. We have to keep students’ needs in all areas -- health, academic, emotional -- at the forefront, but it is ok to consider your own needs as well. You are an important part of your student’s life and if you cannot be actively present to support them, they will suffer. Airlines tell us that in the event of an emergency, put on our own mask before helping others, and the same wisdom applies here. Parents can also support each other in critically evaluating options and helping each other prioritize considerations. Perhaps your friend and you have children in the same class, but her elderly mother is living with her. While you may have the same options available, her decision-making may be different because she may have to prioritize her mother’s health over her child’s needs.
At this time, the best things we can do are to practice confidence and compassion, both with yourself and with others. The best thing parents/guardians can do is be very clear and honest about priorities, consider the bigger picture of life (which includes health, education, finance, mental health, etc.) and how they all come together, and be steadfast in the choice you decide (which may not be for a while!). Remind yourself that you are doing what you think is in the best interest for your child and your family. We can all show compassion for each other and reserve judgement, knowing that everyone is just doing their best to make the right decisions for their family.