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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Parents consider options as they face decision about whether to send kids back to school

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Jennifer Antonik
Jennifer Antonik
Jennifer Antonik is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for the Delaware Farm Bureau.

Stock image of schoolchildren in masks
As the time for school opening draws closer, parents have widely different views about sending kids back.

Alisha Nelson says her 8-year-old is not going to wear a mask 8 hours a day to go to school.

And if she has to, Nelson — a former teacher — said she will homeschool her daughter after reading guidelines for opening schools released Wednesday by the Department of Education. It offered  offered a list of recommendations for school districts and charter schools, depending on whether the virus spread is mild, moderate or severe.

“I have done all aspects of schooling, homeschooling, private, charter, public schooling, so we don’t hold any grudges for any type of schooling,” Nelson said.

But it’s not healthy for a child to wear a mask eight hours a day, she said.

 

“And to restrict the interaction in recess and not even be able to be within touching distance?” Nelson said. “What are we facilitating? Are we restricting relationships? Are we encouraging fear? What, socially, are we building? Because education and socializing are equally important. If we put sole necessity on one or the other, we’re losing value and balance.”

The 39-page guidance report issued by the state gives districts and charter schools flexibility in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic while offering best recommended practices given one of three scenarios:

  • Minimal community spread in Delaware allowing schools to open for in-person instruction;
  • Minimal-to-moderate community spread requiring schools to operate under a hybrid model of remote learning mixed with in-person options; And,
  • Significant community spread forcing school buildings to close with remote learning as the only option for education during the school year.

Depending on the spread of coronavirus in any given community, state leaders say “schools should be prepared to pivot quickly” should conditions change during the school year.

 

The report started off by saying Delawarwe is now experiencing a minimal-to-moderate community spread and “schools likely will reopen for the 2020-2021 school year in a new environment.” A decision will be made in early august, said Delaware Secretary of Education Susan S. Bunting.

The state’s suggested rules for students and schools include:

  • Students and staff members in grades 4-12 must wear cloth face coverings when in the school building; students in pre-k through third grade should wear the masks when in the building. They do not have to wear masks if they are doing something that “would inhibit the individual’s health.”
  • Everyone must have access to handwashing facilities, supplies and hand sanitizer; they must be given the time to utilize these items.
  • Social distancing should be included in all activities. Desks and hallways each have specific suggestions per the guidance.
  • No off-site field trips.
  • Groups of children should stay together “with little to no mixing of classes.”

 

The report covers classroom set-up, transportation, safety, sanitation needs, screening procedures, emotional and mental health, budgets and much more. Ultimately, 20,000 Delawareans gave input for the report, many of the parents and teachers filling out surveys and responding to DOE calls for comments.

Not everybody was for staying home.

“I am the mother of 5 children. My children are in dire need of normalcy,” Rebecca Welch said those comments. “This entire lockdown of society and schools have had a devastating [effect] on my children.”

Her daughter’s grades plummeted under remote learning, and she had always been an honor student before.

 

“Online learning is not a viable way to teach young children,” Welch said. “They need the stimulation of being face to face with teachers and peers. Isolation has taken a toll on all my kids. My fifth grader cried many times because she missed her teacher and friends. My ninth grader had an especially tough time missing her friends and activities. ”

Welch said her children are active in extracurricular dance music, chorus, sports and theater.

“It was all taken from them,” Welch said. “Day in and day out staying home staring at a computer screen has reduced their joy and curiosity and left them feeling so empty.”

Opinions in the comments ranged from support for schools reopening to suggestions on how that process might look in the fall.

 

But Karen Jernigan, who had three children in the Brandywine School District, had the opposite experience than Welch did.

“Honestly, I enjoyed remote learning as my children seemed to excel and grace through the curriculum with ease.” she wrote in the comments. “When asked, my children informed me that they were more focused because of non-distractions of peers and one on one instruction. Personally, I felt safe in secure knowing that my children did not have to face the anxieties of the current pandemic.”

She urged the state to consider a split schooling plan that allows kids whose families want them to return to classrooms to do so, but also allows kids who are thriving at home and don’t want to return to continue learning remotely.

 

“My fears are that our young students may not fully adhere to social distancing and as we globally face a second wave, will it indeed be safe for our children to return to school physically,” Jernigan said. “If students are forced to go to a school building for the upcoming school year, how will it affect the social environment. Will students be ostracized during lunchtime, recess, instruction time?”

For some, the lengthy guidance report is a welcomed reprieve to the pandemic that sent children home from schools and parents out of work. For others, it leaves more questions than answer.

Nelson questions what might happen to teachers should they come in contact with a student positive with coronavirus.

“I think the teachers should be treated like the students,” she said. “Regardless of if they’re 10 or 40, they’re human beings. Set a standard for human beings. Will they be quarantined for 14 days every time? How will that affect substitutes?”

 

Ultimately, what the upcoming school year looks like in Delaware depends on how widespread the virus is and how school districts feel they are able to cope with social distancing and other issues demanded by state recommendations.

Bunting said policy changes may need to be implemented addressing attendance, testing and accountability standards.

“This guidance is just the beginning of our work,” she said in the report. “DDOE will continue to coordinate with DPH (Division of Public Health) and our districts and charter schools to prioritize the health and safety of students and staff as they return to our school buildings.”

 

The state’s teachers already have weighed in.

The Delaware State Education Association immediately released a statement Wednesday saying teachers needed to be at the tables when districts and charters school discuss what will be done.

“We feel that in order to move forward, this guidance will need to be strictly adhered to by the school districts,” the release said. They need to take a hard look at what must be done to keep students and staff safe and healthy.”

Ultimately, though, DSEA said, “If there is even the slightest doubt, the districts need to start the school year in a remote learning environment and continue until they can follow this guidance.”

 

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