Return to school dilemma

1D194D4D-0EE0-4B49-8BBD-46396D693D4ALabor day falls on the 7th of September this year. In years past, this would signal the beginning of the school year a few days after and came with a lot of excitement about school supplies, new schedules, outfits, etc. This year, there isn’t as much excitement as there is anxiety — more so on my part.

My soon-to-be junior in high school had picked a school which was quite a trek from where we live. It meant going into the city via Express Bus like I do, then a one stop subway ride and a 6 minute walk from the subway to school. All in all, if there was no traffic, he could make it to school in under an hour. He would take the subway and the local bus on the way home because the Express bus took longer, and meant catching his ride based on a schedule. We had gotten used to this the last two years.

When New York sheltered in place, we switched to remote learning. I gave the school some slack given the sudden adjustment from in-classroom learning to virtual, which, I can imagine, was quite the challenge to the faculty. It wasn’t a huge student population, but it also meant there was limited faculty presence. We made do with the system, and I tried to monitor his progress through the remainder of the school year. Although he did very well during this time, I couldn’t help but feel he was missing out on much of what should’ve been learned had there be in person instruction instead. But what can we do given the pandemic?

Over the summer, the school administration kept in touch and came up with a novel proposal regarding the return to school come fall. The Department of Education had given several models to follow and choose from, depending on the size of the school population and the physical space available that would accommodate social distancing. Add to that the optimum distribution of faculty between in-person and remote learning. We had two options essentially: one was to be fully remote, and the other, to do blended learning. The latter meant that he would spend part of the time in school, doing in person learning and part of the time, remotely.

The principal of my son’s school took great pains to explain what they thought was the best solution, given the above factors. “Blended learning” would have to be a half day in school every two weeks. That meant that for 9.5 days of the 10 day two week cycle, the students would be remote. This would enable the faculty to focus equally on the 7 students who would actually be physically present in the classroom at any given time, and the rest of the student body doing remote learning. That seemed like quite a lopsided proposition at first, but after it was explained that 10 of the 30 or so faculty would actually qualify to teach remote due to pre-existing conditions, etc., it didn’t make sense to force any of the other proposed models. If we were to follow the DOE directive, it looked like our school would fall into the twice a week weekly, with a third day in school every other week model. It was confusing for most parents — and there was an uproar and some really bewildered people on the ” virtual townhall” I participated in. There was just no way to make it simple enough for everyone to understand. But I found the school’s proposal acceptable.

It’s bad enough that I have to worry about his commute. Everyone knows that classrooms are breeding grounds for infectious diseases among the younger generation. – pandemic or not. Masks all day? I wouldn’t trust my boy to do that unless I was watching. Sanitizers? Okay, maybe that one, I can trust him to do. Even at home, he has always taken to washing his hands often.

So we signed a petition to the Department of Education, endorsing the proposal of the school. And then we were turned down.

Last week, the principal announced that we would do the 2 days one week and 3 days the next week model. It was also revealed that 55% of the students had opted for remote learning. The boy chimed in that most of his classmates who opted to return to school either lived close by or were coming in because of the free meals.

I didn’t need much convincing to switch sides and opt for fully remote learning. I called the boy’s father and had a discussion and we agreed.

As a parent, I have tried my best to protect him during this time of social distancing and COVID worries. I was rooting for the school’s proposal because I wouldn’t have had any problems spending for Uber both ways for that once-biweekly class. But to have him commuting in what is a usually tighter than tight route even just by one stop was a cause of anxiety.

He and I have been lucky to have been untouched (so far) by COVID. There was a false alarm earlier in the summer when his father got sick but tested negative, and then tested positive for antibodies. Thankfully, the boy tested negative.

I have been trying to limit his social interaction with his friends, while acknowledging that I cannot totally keep him locked up at home. He has a small group of friends he sees once a week, with a strict rule of staying outdoors and not going into anybody’s house. We are lucky to be surrounded by lots of open space courts and playgrounds, along with an abundance of parks and greenery. Most homes like ours have courtyards or backyards to practice social distancing in. But school would’ve been totally different matter.

I cannot say I was torn between prioritizing his education over his safety. This was a no-brainer for me. His safety was of primary concern. During this time when it seems like so much has changed and uncertainty continues to permeate our everyday lives, there is very little that we have retained control over. And this one, I could steer one way or the other.

It’s one of the big sacrifices that the pandemic has imposed upon us as parents — while I would want school to go back to normal, I know that even having him there physically doesn’t mean he will receive normal instruction. Teachers would also be wearing masks . Interaction would be limited. Half their time would be consumed by work geared towards the students who aren’t physically with them. It is a test of wills on both ends.

Just today, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that school opening will be delayed 10 days to September 21. Apparently, the teachers and principals are up in arms, threatening a strike as they are apprehensive about their safety and the ability of the government to help protect them in the current scenario. Many of our educators also feel that they aren’t prepared to head into the blended learning scenarios and fully remote learning option that many children and their families have taken. I can relate. Unlike the children they will teach, the opening of school will mean they will have to be in every day. The cadence of school attendance was offered to the students — but not to the teachers.

Many working parents have been thrown in a bind due to this postponement of the school opening, particularly those who were relying on a semblance of normalcy with the kids off to school. Some companies have actually slowly started going back to work, although many companies have declared they would return next year. Still, parents who don’t have the option to work from home or stay at home are now caught between a rock and a hard place.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work from home all this time. I will not complain about the difficulty of doing what I had been used to doing in the office in my dining room. I am fully connected. Most importantly, I am continuing to work full time. We will eventually return to work, and while that is a source of mild anxiety, it is something I can prepare myself for both mentally and physically.

We all have to make adjustments. While I believe I am getting the short end of the stick with the option of keeping my boy home to learn remotely or sending him out into a Covid-ridden world on his own to go back to school, I will take the lesser of two evils. I have my own anxiety about the fall and all the things that go with it in this new normal. I had always lived by the tenet that although there is much that we cannot control, we must be firm about those that we have a handle on.

I am hopeful that there will come a time — hopefully soon — when our kids will be able to go back to school and actually learn in a classroom setting. I just know that we aren’t quite there yet, so for now, I choose to keep him at home. We will just have to make the most of it.