No ‘great’ answer: Three families and three very different approaches to heading back to school during a pandemic

No ‘great’ answer: Three families and three very different approaches to heading back to school during a pandemic
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Over the past few weeks, parents, students, and educators dealt with a pros and cons list that had no clear winner. There is no right answer for all when it comes to making a back-to-school decision during a global pandemic.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school system starts today in an all-virtual setting. The district weighed three options all summer — all in person, partially in-person and virtual, and all-virtual. Over the weekend, the district, along with area nonprofit organizations and Lowe’s, raced to make sure all kids had the necessary equipment. Meanwhile, some families with more means have elected to bring tutors into the home to help facilitate the virtual learning.

We recently surveyed 1,167 parents and teachers, and the responses revealed the complexity of juggling kids during the Covid-19 outbreak. One mom with a first-grader and a two-year-old debated whether to quit her job to watch them during the day or take on the expense of childcare for two kids. A middle school teacher making under $65,000 a year said she’d have to rely on family to watch her kids while she virtually taught her students. One mother said she could afford a tutor for her elementary school kids using virtual learning, but she’d have to put college savings on hold as a result.

Pro virtual: Virtual learning better protects students and teachers from Covid-19. Disease spreads quickly through school buildings with their shared surfaces and large numbers of teachers and students.

Con virtual: Yet, virtual learning could put some students in danger. Those who rely on school lunch and a safe place to go from approximately 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. will have a hard time getting the physical and emotional support they need through a computer screen. Additionally, it’s harder for teachers to make connections through a screen.

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Pro virtual: But at the same time, do we really want kindergarteners wearing masks all day and social distancing? How do you convey the seriousness of a pandemic to a child? The version of school that requires students and teachers to stay six feet apart sounds like a complicated, no-fun place.

Con virtual: You could argue, though, that the social distancing and mask wearing are worth it for the socialization in-person learning provides.

I could go back and forth like this for another 1,000 words, and many Charlotte parents already have. Ultimately, families chose the “less bad” solution for them.

We spoke to a few families who responded to our survey about what their “less bad” scenarios looked like. They all answered differently and shed light on how family structure and income play a part in making school decisions this year. We chose three of them to highlight the range of scenarios.

1. A “normal” back to school plan

On the first day of school today, Emily DiNunzio will be one of a small number of local parents who loads her 10-year-old into the car and drops her off at a physical school building.

“I don’t feel great about it in this current landscape, but I also wouldn’t feel great about full virtual,” Emily told me. “I don’t think there is ‘great’ in this current landscape.”

DiNunzio’s daughter attends a charter school. They have to abide by state restrictions, but aren’t bound by CMS’s decision to start the year virtually.

When making decisions about what to do this year, DiNunzio said she thought about her daughter’s health and preferences. Her daughter is healthy and isn’t at risk for serious Covid complications, and she preferred the in-person option.

“I’ve had to explain it’s not gonna be like normal school, you’ll be in the same room, probably in the same seat all day,” DiNunzio said.

Having a child in school all week means not much will change for DiNunzio’s family. She’ll drop her daughter off daily and then head to work at the Cabarrus County Boys and Girls Club (where she can bring her daughter along if need be).

After spending most of their time together this spring and summer, she says the biggest change will be going back to spending large chunks of the day apart.

“I’ve liked having all this time with her so there’s been blessings in that.”

DiNunzio family

The DiNunzio family

2. Virtual learning inspires homeschool pod

These are strange circumstances for everyone, but for those just starting school or almost done with it, it’s a bittersweet transition in life. A virtual kindergarten, or a virtual senior year? They just seem like letdowns, and ripe for being unproductive.

Talia Penninger’s only child is a rising kindergartener who would’ve gone to a CMS school and started the year virtually. Instead Penninger opted to homeschool her soon-to-be six-year-old along with a few other students in a pod learning environment. The parents involved will create their own curriculum and rotate teaching responsibilities to save money.

“We want to make sure each of the kids are challenged,” she says. “We don’t have teaching backgrounds. … It’s a little scary but we’re also trusting our gut.”

For Penninger the uncertainty is worth it because she wants her daughter to socialize with other kids her age. “I’m already seeing my very outgoing child become very insular and very antisocial in a way that is really different,” she says.

If the pod goes well, she’d like to continue this style of learning even beyond the pandemic. Penninger works from home and her husband works part time so their schedules are flexible. She realizes, though, not all parents have the same luxury.

“The worry about that is then we’re going to have a whole generation of a different form of inequality (facing) the kids who didn’t have the opportunity of more individualized learning,” she said of the gaps in education.

[Related Agenda story: How ‘pandemic pods’ work, how much they cost, and who they leave behind]

Virtual learning setup CMS

3. High school family “makes it work” 

For Bryna Callison’s family, childcare won’t be an issue this school year but college readiness could be. Her son, a junior at Mallard Creek, was hoping to land a soccer scholarship.

“We’re struggling with the athletics part of it. He’s out of shape now and he was in such amazing shape. He was taking weightlifting at school,” she said. “It’s been really hard to find something (weightlifting equipment) that’s affordable.”

Without the financial help of a scholarship, she worries about finding ways to afford a four-year degree. Now, he’s considering trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

Callison works at a restaurant, her husband works at Amazon. They, like so many families, live paycheck to paycheck. When CMS moved to virtual learning, Callison went from full-time to part-time at her restaurant job. She could use the money but prioritized being there for her son as he learns at home.

“If I could work full-time it would definitely be less stressful,” she says. “We wouldn’t have to worry so much about it, but I’d always planned on working part-time until all of my kids graduated from high school.”

Her daughter finished her senior year of high school this spring, after the district moved to virtual learning. After graduation she moved to Durham to be a special effects makeup artist.

Now Callison’s youngest is starting his junior year virtually. The lost soccer practices and jazz band concerts sting for her family, but Callison doesn’t want her son, his peers, or their teachers to be exposed to coronavirus.

“I don’t want him anywhere near school, at all this fall. Just stay away.” Callison says she’ll keep that mindset until there’s a vaccine. And until then, her family will make it work.

“We’ve always made it work. One way or another we’ve somehow always managed to get through.”

Callison family

The Callison family


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