Back to school in the pandemic era

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While families like mine are trying to make the best of this pandemic summer, we also have our minds on fall, and what this school year will look like for our kids.  

Local school districts have started to submit their reopening plans to the state for review, based on the guidance released earlier this month. Next week, New York will decide whether schools can reopen, depending on each region’s ability to remain in Phase IV with a less than 5 percent COVID-19 infection rate.  

Though the final decision is not in our hands, most parents like me are speculating about possible outcomes so that we can start preparing our households for a different school experience than we have ever had.  

I reached out to a number of suburban parents to find out whether they favored online learning only, a full reopening of schools, or a hybrid scenario. I asked about their challenges and victories during the spring lockdown when schools first switched to online learning, to see what we could learn from our past experiences. I received responses from parents in Honeoye Falls, Pittsford, Victor, Webster, West Irondequoit, and Rush Henrietta. They represent the views of only a portion of our local school districts, but they include some important family experiences that may help us move forward.

Read this post on the regional task force focused on school reopening plans

Of the parents that I heard from, the majority of families with older kids (middle and high school) favored either a full reopening or an online/in-person hybrid plan. The abrupt shift to online learning during the spring lockdown had posed significant challenges for their children, including a decrease in motivation and lack of advancement. 

There also were several classes that students could not successfully complete at home such as science labs and studio art classes. Parents were concerned that their kids felt disconnected from their friends and devastated by the cancellation of events that they considered rites of passage. Most would like to see school sports and extracurricular activities resume this fall (with appropriate safety measures), as they recognize how important these activities are to social and emotional development. Some are already preparing alternate events (drive-by parades, video events and social distance gatherings) should we have to cancel celebrations this year as well. 

From my discussion with parents with younger children (preschool and elementary) I learned that many of them favored at-home learning. They raised concerns that wearing masks and being in an environment that needed constant cleaning would feel stressful and unsafe. One parent also mentioned that exposing the kids to more disinfectants could adversely affect their health in the long run. Some have already chosen to homeschool, regardless of the state’s decision. Others are hoping to that the state will approve an online version of school that families can choose, even if schools reopen. 

When I asked parents to reflect on positive outcomes that they experienced during the spring lockdown, almost everyone who responds said their families benefited from a slower pace of life.

Sueann Wells, of Honeoye Falls says: “One of my kids developed an incredible interest in creative writing and poetry that she had previously ‘hated’ to write in school etc. One of my kids learned to knit and sew. One of my kids discovered novels she had never really recognized that we owned in our family library.”  

Families also found more time to bake and cook, do household chores and play board games. Ginger Sorensen of Pittsford cites “quality family time and family dinners” as the two benefits her family experienced during spring. Others reported that they felt healthier as they found more time to exercise, sleep and enjoy nature. Though very few wanted to maintain their lockdown lifestyle, most would agree that those months at home gave them a chance to reassess their priorities and carve out more family time.  

The decision next week will set school reopening plans in motion, but a change in the infection rate may require another shift in whatever educational model we have in place. School staff will be challenged to provide consistency in education in an environment that is constantly changing.  

As Tarryn Rozen of Pittsford observes, “I think the more parents can be reminded that this is a learning experience for school staff too and they need support and helpful feedback, not criticism, the more we can all hopefully work through this together as a team for our children’s well-being.” 

This year, our students will need to be more disciplined, whether it means wearing masks at school or staying focused on their education when they are at home. Families will need to be flexible, as schedules may change in order to contain the spread of the virus. We will all need to be more patient and understanding of personal choices, as the threat of this virus affects each person differently. This certainly won’t be a normal back-to-school experience, but hopefully it will be one in which our kids will stay healthy and well-educated.  

Nipa Armbruster has been a fashion designer, martial arts instructor and an active volunteer in her kids’ schools. She currently writes the blog All coronavirus articles are collected here.

One thought on “Back to school in the pandemic era

  1. All relevant physician organizations, e.g. the American College of Pediatrics, have endorsed 5 day / week full return to school in Sept. This is also the recommendation of Public Health, e.g. the CDC. There is no documented case of a teacher catching Covid-19 from a student anywhere in the world. While a few kids will adapt and thrive amidst most adversity, nearly every study of the biopsychosocial impact of Covid-19 social isolation on children has shown harm, e.g. increased depression. And, the negative economic consequences of school closure on families are enormous. The childhood mortality from Covid-19 is 1/5 that of the flu, which rarely close the schools, and then briefly during an outbreak peak. The Covid-19 peak is long past in Rochester, with very few new cases or deaths.
    Opening schools is the only rational choice a Rochester area school board can make, if they have the good of our community as their first priority; that is their mandate.

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